Set Stories #1: Let’s Talk!

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(TW: Suicide, Mental Health)

A young and talented Indian actor died by suicide two days ago. His unfortunate death has triggered a lot of us and opened the floor to conversations ranging from mental health to nepotism in the film industry, making us all question the idea of “success” we’re all striving for. I, for one, have spent the last two days seething in anger, because, let’s not kid ourselves, mental health on film sets is a joke.

Please note: I am speaking only from my own experiences as an Assistant Director (AD). Some of you may resonate with this and some of you may not. This is not to say that I’ve only had terrible experiences. Like any other job, being on set is exhilarating; it is where you make friends for life, witness a range of myriad emotions on full display and learn to wade through muck to make something worthwhile with every ounce of love you have in your heart. But, it can also be extremely traumatising and someone needs to address this. Also, “You may say that I’m bitter… but I’m not the only one…”

Earlier today, I read a tweet by actor / comedian Vir Das that struck me instantly. Upon sharing it on my social media feed, I got messages from a lot of film crew members who mentioned how much they related to it and moments that triggered their own anxiety in the middle of a production. Film crews are made up of a very unequal hierarchy of people, some of whom have a lot of power and some who don’t. Most often, it is the powerless, who aren’t considered worthy of accolades and aren’t in the spotlight, who continue to go unnoticed when shit hits the fan. So, if we are seriously considering talking about the mental health of members of the industry, then it is these people – the lower rung, the silent workers – who need to be spoken about first. If “tearing your hair out” had a visual translation, it would be the workings of a film set in India.

I respect hierarchy based on experience. I have no qualms in learning from those who have been around longer than me, especially those who are willing to teach from experience. But, that’s not always the case. More times than not, you find yourself caught in a crossfire of egos, wanting to scream but having to swallow it all and move on. Stuck between warring HOD’s, you will find assistants sobbing silently in corners or staring into the dark void that is their future because they know that the blame (for mostly everything) will eventually fall on them. The spilling of anger on set is a domino effect that doesn’t end with the ADs, but unleashes itself even on the most unsuspecting spot dada who happened to walk into the room with “Baby ka juice” at the wrong time. It’s not his fault that Baby refused to do the scene if she didn’t get her juice right away!

I apologise for digressing.

To be honest, the mental health of crew members is rarely a priority on set. Yes, you could get yourself a therapist to deal with your trauma, but only if you can afford it. And while it’s always a good thing to emerge from your experiences stronger, having to constantly question your self-worth can be extremely taxing. Couple that with the recurring thought that all of it is just your imagination and that you’re the only one unhappy, so maybe you’re the problem. If you have a good enough team, you can all cry on each other’s shoulders or drink copious amounts of alcohol to wish away the bad. If not, you face the abuse hurled at you and go cry into your stained hotel pillow every night.

But if we’re really going to start a conversation about mental health, let’s talk about the divisive politics that industry folk indulge in; about the sexual harassment of crew members; about holding in your pee for 12-13 hours at a stretch because segregated toilets are unheard of (more on this in my next post); about the huge pay gap between employees and the lack of opportunities based on their gender; about the pressure on actors, yes, but the pressure on everyone to make a film / series happen. These are just a few examples of topics that can be immensely triggering for crew members that have gone under the scanner long enough. It may be a good idea to tackle these issues before even attempting to combat the invincibility of nepotism. We all need to take responsibility for our actions and we ALL need to do better.

SOS DELHI.

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Hate was just a failure of imagination.

Graham Greene, ‘The Power and the Glory’

They say writing is one way of showing your dissent, your displeasure towards a particular situation, especially if you cannot be physically present. And, while most of my writing channels itself in angry rants directed at fence-sitters and silent spectators, the urge to write to express myself eats me up inside till I finally get down to it. Today is one of those days.

Clashes / Pogrom / Riots / Genocide. Over the last four days, as Delhi (particularly NE Delhi) went up in flames, there’s been a social media war over which word best suits the situation we are in. And while the war wages on, the increasing death toll in Delhi is worrisome.

As a citizen who head-dived into the anti-CAA protests, this violence is horrifying. In India, where the loss of lives is a mere statistic, that something like this would shock me, shocks me even more. We the people of India wake up to discrimination only as per our own convenience, bombard our social media accounts with #SOS calls, gruesome images of brutalities, plaster #Free whoever is the person of the moment on our Facebook walls before promptly going back to sleep or about our daily lives. I’m not judging or pointing fingers at anyone here, I belong to the same category of people and while I’m glad that we are finally ready to act, our collective silence on the crackdown in Kashmir and Assam is proof enough of where our priorities lie, i.e. with ourselves. So, what exactly is our issue? Why does it take so long for us to stand up for or against something? Why do we wait for the calamity to come knocking on our door before we’re consumed by panic or fear or just plain anger?

The image that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. February, 2020. Image: Reuters

India has a plethora of existing problems. You can begin with unemployment and income inequality and trace it back to the vicious caste and class systems that don’t provide the people of this country equal opportunities. Top it up with gender-based discrimination and the alienation of those who don’t identify with either gender. Add to all this a religious twist and you have, quite literally, a recipe for disaster. Murders aren’t just murders in our country anymore. You can be killed for loving someone everyone thinks is wrong to love. You could be raped and murdered, because the idea of just raping a woman or a child doesn’t exist on its own. You unknowingly have the blood of the million sewer cleaners in your locality on your hands. With all this already going on, the fact that a majority of our population thinks it’s okay to kill in the name of religion is altogether more baffling. But it’s real and at our doorstep. These problems I speak of didn’t just appear one day and will not disappear overnight. Simply trying to understand this obsession with hate and violence is what will probably help us find a solution to ending it and unfortunately, the process will take a lifetime and much more.

The struggle for identity is where hate stems from. Every individual person, on either side of the fence, is constantly at war with themselves over whether to help others or themselves. Yes, it comes from a place of privilege that I can choose between fighting the reason for the fire that could cause harm or simply jump into the fire to save someone else. And, it’s hard. One of my observations from participating in the Anti-CAA protests was noting how trivial most of our intentions are. Yes, we are united in fighting against the unconstitutional law that our government passed beneath our very noses, but unlike our opposition that fits perfectly under the umbrella of Hindutva, the rest of us are like siblings; we belong to one family but are constantly bickering with each other over some of the most useless shit sometimes. Our rage manifests itself in online verbal spats, unfriending and unfollowing on social media and sly tweets – all of which our “Hindu Khatre Mein Hain” (Hindu’s are under threat) brethren are watching from a distance and clapping. All it took was a few hateful words from someone to ignite this fire. And while our media continues to please both sides, it is a fact that the ones who have suffered the most, not just their lives but also their livelihood, belong to the Muslim community. In all this, it is also important to note how everyone in our problematic family comes together in the face of tragedy, like in Delhi right now and one can only regret not having stood up when the government decided to cut Kashmir off from the rest of us, blind-siding us completely. Better late than never, right? Too late, buddy, too late.

Delhi. February, 2020. Image: Reuters
Kashmir. August, 2019. Image: Reuters
Kashmir has faced the longest internet shutdown in the world.

I, personally, have been a wreck this past week. The constant updates and SOS messages from those afraid for their lives really shook me up and I found myself weeping uncontrollably at the oddest of hours. It makes you wonder then, if images of atrocities can cut through your very soul, how is it still possible for some to turn a blind eye. And it is then that I realise that by fuelling one’s fear of losing their identity, you can create the kind of monsters our PM and our Home Minister and their crew of sword-wielding ministers have successfully managed to do. They’ve created an army of poor, employed people who will do their dirty work, without them having to lift a finger. It’s difficult to hope that all of us on this side of the fence can band together despite our issues with one another, but there’s no harm in trying.

Until then, Inquilab Zindabad!

Reflections on a Poem

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By: Minna Kabir

Dear BJP Government, into that Heaven of Freedom, let my country awake

          with true Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas Sabka Vishwas

Where  the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depths of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection.
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way,
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever widening thought and action.
Into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my country awake.

                                                                 RABINDRANATH TAGORE
                                                                  Gitanjali

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high:

Dear Government can you not feel the fear, the pain, and the sense of rejection, from the people who brought you to power with a huge majority, and who you are supposed to serve and look after so that my country may awake to “sabka saath sabka vikas sabka vishwas?” The mind cannot be without fear and our heads cannot be held high when I open the pages of the newspapers, and watch on TV screens, words spoken by our elected representatives, words like, “those raising anti-government slogans will be buried alive.”, “They will be attacked by sticks, shot at, and put in prison. They will be shot at like dogs.” Is this what my India will have to endure for the next five years of your term in office?

Where knowledge is free:

How can knowledge be free when the people you are supposed to serve, are not heard when they express their dissent? When their cries for sympathy and understanding are met with a ‘lathi-charge’ and even bullets? When their cries for equality of all people are met by putting them behind bars, and then by not providing them access to due justice and the rule of law? When their cries for a hearing are met with stony silence or words of hate? And when the democratic institutions of our dear country, which are meant to protect us and guard our Constitutions and laws, turn a deaf ear to the pleas for protection and justice? Is this Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas Sabka Vishwas?

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls:

Every morning my country, instead of awakening into that heaven of freedom that Rabindranath Tagore spoke of, awakens to the feeling of fragmentation after the CAA has been pushed through Parliament in a hurry. My country fears being broken up into “tukde tukde” with the impending NPR and NRC, because it has broken up our society into the “pro” and the “anti” sloganeering that is generating hate and negativity all over the country. Is this not enough for a government to rethink the legislation?

Where words come out from the depths of truth:

We no longer know what to believe from the mouths of our government. We hear one thing one day, and then something else the next day. We hear different things from different people who are our elected representatives. Words of hope one day, and then words that bring fear and dread another day. Is it not our Constitution that is supposed to provide the boundaries of truth for all? Are we not all taught from childhood to respect above all else our Constitution and the rule of law? Our students, our young people, the women of our country, and our people are looking up to you to look them in the eye and speak in Rabindranath Tagore words “words from the depths of truth.”

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection:

Yes we have to stretch our arms towards perfection, but as frail human beings we have to realize that we are not always perfect in our decisions and actions. Our egos however do not allow us to admit that maybe we are wrong. We do not climb down from our positions, even though all around people seem to be saying you are making a mistake in using a law on the basis of religion, a law that will serve to divide our country, a law that can be misused in the years to come, and a law that is against the basic tenets of our constitution. Do not build walls on the basis of religion, the common people have suffered enough during the partition, when families were partitioned along with our country, because our rulers then wanted to divide and rule. Yes you are the duly elected government, but it is a sign of strength and not of weakness if you allow the opposition to express itself. It is a sign of a healthy democracy if there is a free press, and if there is room for debate in Parliament and in the larger society. And if you say that we were not allowed to do it when we were in the opposition, is that a reason for not doing it now and setting a good precedent?

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way:

Let discourse, open discussion, difference of opinion, dissent, all be allowed to flourish in this great democracy of ours which has stood out in the world because of its famed spirit of tolerance, love and brotherhood. We have been praised all over this world because of the “unity in diversity” we have shown through the ages. A person who travels all over the country from north to south and from east to west, encounters so many different types of cultures, so many languages, so many habits, so many ways of dressing, so many ways of doing things, some contradicting each other, some clashing with each other. But we have endured all the differences through the ages, because we have, in our diversity, had “the clear stream of reason” and unity guiding us through the centuries. Our differences have made us unique through history, so let us make our differences our strength, and be a beacon of hope to this world which is getting so divided.

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit:

If our country is to travel into that “heaven of freedom”, let us not look back into the mistakes made in our history. Human societies from time eternal have achieved greatness, but have also made mistakes and have been responsible for wrong actions. If we stay in the desert sand of dead habit and try to extort revenge for some deeds of history, how will our country reach that “heaven of freedom”? Let us look forward, let us learn from mistakes made at different times in our history, and let us not try to extract revenge from the common people of our country who just want to live in peace and freedom. Let us strive towards a society where every Indian, regardless of what religion or community he belongs to, can have a roof over his head, food to eat, water to drink, medical help when necessary, a good education for his children, a means to earn a living with dignity, an efficient and honest system of governance, and a future for all coming generations. Let us not waste time and resources, looking back in time and history, at which Raja did something wrong, or which Sultan made a mistake, or which other country is going wrong somewhere, and where we should have revenge, and there will be plenty of space for everyone in that “heaven of freedom to which our great India will awake.”

Where the mind is led forward by Thee, into ever widening thought and action, into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my Country awake:

An atmosphere of negativity, revenge and threats towards neighbouring countries perceived wrongs, changing names of streets and buildings and statues because of a perceived sense of humiliation or grievance, a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’, will never lead us forward into ever widening thought and action. India has always been a shining beacon of tolerance, an example of assimilation of diversity, peaceful non-cooperation with unjust currents in history, and if you as our elected government diverted your attention to positivity regardless of what goes on around us, it would not be a sign of weakness, but a sign of the great strength and values that we Indians hold dear. We have our great institutions and we have our brave armed forces, but let us use them as deterrents and guardians, and not as threats, so that we can uphold the values of peace and tolerance in the world. Let us uphold the values of Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and all the other great people of our country, and let us not have to tell any of our people “go back to where you belong, or go back to where you come from”, because that would be a very negation of all our great Indian cultural traditions and values.        


Minna Kabir has extensive experience working with child rights and human rights movements in Kolkata, Jharkhand and Delhi.

Image courtesy: https://designway4u.blogspot.com/

NO CAA. NO NRC.

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To a former friend, 
The proud ‘Sanghi’,
We always knew,
We wouldn’t agree,
You enjoyed the divide,
I favoured the free
Your rabid hate,
Now a reality,
But, we’ll learn to exist,
You and me.
(No CAA. No NRC)

To my former friend, 
The closet ‘Sanghi’,
You came as a surprise,
A jolt, actually,
You called me out,
On my stupidity,
I call you out,
On your bigotry,
Can we ever be friends? 
You and me?
(No CAA. No NRC)

To my former friend,
The star of the show,
Whose voice is now missing,
Who succumbed to the blow,
But, it’s never too late,
Dear friend, you know,
You will lose a lot, 
But, you’ll gain so much more! 
We can still be friends,
You and I, for sure.

To all my new friends,
Born out of this fight,
I salute your ability,
To chose what is right.
Please don’t lose hope
And don’t lose your might,
It may all seem dismal,
With no end in sight,
‘We won’t go gently,
Into the night’
This is a call to humanity, 
A call to unite! 

SCENES FROM A PROTEST: THE PERSPECTIVE OF A REGULAR INDIAN.

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My name is Tara Bhatnagar. I am a Hindu. My father, now deceased, was a Hindu. My mother is a Christian. My uncles and cousins are Muslim, Sikh and Christian. One of my aunts and my sister-in-law belong to Assam. We are Indian and a fine example of ‘National Integration’, something even my grandparents had no choice but to encourage. If they could, then the current Indian government holds no ground in their filtering of Indian citizens.

It is important to reiterate the fact that we are born into religion by chance and it is from our family’s values and our understanding of the world that we shape our beliefs. However, at the end of the day, we are all human beings with the same feelings; the same joys and sorrows and the same attachments and this should be reason enough to band together, even in the most testing of times.

I am not here to tell you how wrong the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are. I am not going to sermonise how unjust the new National Population Register (NPR) is either. There are women and men far more qualified to do this and I am happy to share their work. All I can say is that these laws, the BJP government is working relentlessly to pass, are unconstitutional and completely against the ethos of a secular, democratic India that our fore-fathers envisioned and successfully executed in 1947, when we gained freedom from the British. The financial implications of these bills are a whole different story.

Detained protestors protest under police supervision

Read: https://docs.google.com/document/u/0/d/1sXNPwNZJpqf5dkoisyp4Fu1xqA5q0ocP0rx4xyB6Ub4/mobilebasic

The recent “uprising by the people of India” as Umar Khalid, activist and former JNU student, calls it is proof that the people of this country are unwilling to blindly accept government orders. Having been a part of several protests across Delhi and the news from across the country, I can confidently say that the people of India are angry and are taking to the streets to show it. However, the government, in a show of strength has clamped down on states like Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka (in some measure) where the number of deaths and injuries from “alleged” police brutalities is, sadly, only on the rise.

Yogendra Yadav and Umar Khalid at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi

Watch:

1). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZNnIIxjkT0&list=PLYSfYVdrOZvgrZkL-AMP3S9UjPqpAIkA2&index=4

2). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8RJEA2Y0a4

While I am not surprised by Modi-Shah’s antics – it was pretty obvious (to me) after Godhra – it is the behavior of the police and the bhakts that really astonishes me. I have, over these last few days, lost a number of people I called friends because of their insistence that the CAA has nothing to do with the citizens of India and their claim that I was unnecessarily spreading discord and hate by joining the protests. My own explanation of my stance has fallen on deaf ears and the discussions have often turned ugly because, as you may already know, all bhakts have a standard script which turns absolutely vile when they’re unable to convince you that they’re right. Needless to say, good riddance!

Detained at Red Fort. Photo: Tarun Bharat Daily

My mother and I were detained from a protest at Red Fort on the 19th of December, 2019. It was, I have to admit, one of the most surreal things to happen to me. One minute I was chasing after Yogendra Yadav as he was being detained by the cops and the next minute I was in a bus myself. The police-women who dragged us to the buses stationed behind the barricades seemed scary in that moment but once the bus was sufficiently full and they got on, they were just bored and tired. Same for the men. They took us to an open stadium (read: makeshift jail) where all those detained were allowed to protest under police supervision. We were fed bananas and samosas and sing and chant, while they sat around on the grass, chatting among themselves. And, while I consider myself extremely lucky to have experienced a relatively easy day that day – a sort of picnic we couldn’t escape – not everyone can say the same. After the crackdown by the Delhi Police on the students of Jamia Millia Islamia on the 16th of December and the peaceful protest at Daryaganj on the 21st of December, one can’t be too sure if they still have their ideals intact. The death toll in Uttar Pradesh is proof enough.

Anti CAA + NRC protest outside Jamia Millia Islamia

What is remarkable, however, is the fearlessness of the citizens on the ground. Be it at Jamia, Jantar Mantar, Red Fort, Mandi House or Shaheen Bagh, the people are unwilling to give up! At this point, I’d just like to add that the winter this year in Delhi is unforgiving. I went to the protest at Shaheen Bagh last night; a silent protest by women who have been camping on the main road 24×7 for the last 13 days, with their kids in tow. They are not only protesting against the CAA-NRC that attempts to strip them of their citizenship but also in solidarity with the students of Jamia, many of whom are their own children. The area is cordoned off by a rope, inside which the women and children sit facing a podium, the men surrounding them. There is a steady supply of food and hot chai, prepared by the protestors themselves and speeches by various speakers ranging from students, lawyers, actors and academics. With the temperature hitting a minimum of 5 degrees, it is overwhelming how relentless these brave women are. One can only hope that these collective protests bear (sensible) fruit. ‘Don’t be silent. Don’t be violent’ is the mantra of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and it is essential that we adopt it.

The brave women of Shaheen Bagh

Be it the imposing of section 370 in Kashmir or the Ayodhya verdict or the agitation in Assam, none of these incidents really provoked the people of India the way the CAA and NRC have. There has been visible awakening in the masses, albeit a little late, but it will take a lot to quell this fire. And while, you may have had enough of sitting silently and decided to fight, a time like this can also be extremely unnerving for some. It is necessary for everyone with or without a voice to stand up now, educate yourself and those around you and even though it isn’t important to be everywhere, it is important to get out of your house and show solidarity with those on the streets. It is simply not enough to sit in front of your televisions or on your phones / laptops and absorb the government’s injustice. Also, carry food and water wherever you go. You never know where you might get stuck during a protest or a shut down. Or you might just get detained! Be prepared!’ And while I am no expert on protests, I beg you not to lose momentum. Not now in any case.

Shaheen Bagh

Let me just end by saying that the one good thing the BJP government has done is unite all of us against their attempts at vote-bank politics. The fact that they have failed us as a nation isn’t hidden any longer. The idea of a Hindu-rashtra may be an exciting prospect for some, but let’s not forget the ONE thing we were taught repeatedly in school: ‘United we stand. Divided we fall.”

***********************************************************************************

The CAA and NRC in a nutshell:

CAA: https://www.instagram.com/p/B6SKYRDJPjv/

NRC: https://www.instagram.com/p/B6UreATJJR5/

Art by: Sharath Ravishankar (Follow: https://www.instagram.com/shirtshanks/?hl=en)

You can also follow me on Instagram for regular updates about protests and CAA/NRC related posts: https://www.instagram.com/tara_bhatnagar/?hl=en

THE DARKNESS

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A HALF-DECENT POEM ABOUT DEPRESSION. THAT RHYMES.
 
A darkness she saw, 
In the people she loved, 
A darkness that roared and rippled. 
She saw it in Grandpa, 
Who didn’t like Grandma, 
Who made sure their son’s heart it crippled. 
 
And the darkness she saw, 
Had grown and grown, 
And plagued the boy, body and soul
When he got to a stage,
Where he felt love and rage,
He knew it was taking a toll. 
 
So, the darkness was locked up, 
And the keys thrown away, 
His young heart still beating and alive. 
But, the darkness tried ways,
To show its ugly face,
It had to get out to survive. 
 
But, darkness is fickle, 
It waits and waits,
Making you feel like it’s gone…. poof!
You can smile through it all, 
Think you’re having a ball,
All you are is just sad and aloof. 
 
The boy grew older,
Went to college, went to work,
Unaware of the secrets he hid.
The darkness lay dormant,
No trouble, no torment,
And so, came a wife and two kids. 
 
Just as with happiness, 
That doesn’t last long, 
The darkness – it finally took flight! 
It made the man angry,
It made him very sad.
Sleepless days and sleepless nights. 
 
The games darkness plays, 
It simmers, it slays,
It devoured a full grown man whole. 
Unsmiling and worn,
In his room all alone,
A war and weather-beaten soul. 
 
She watched him and watched him,
As he lay in his coffin,
The darkness trapped with him in death.
But, with his last sigh,
As she’d kissed him goodbye,
It latched onto her – body and breath. 
 
And, the sleeplessness continues…


 

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash.
 
 
 

TRAVEL, MAGAR DHYAAN SE (TRAVEL , BUT WITH CARE)

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Last month, my partner and I decided to beat the heat and “head to the hills!!!”, a very unoriginal idea, given that everyone plans hill-station holidays during the summer, but our excitement to bike from Delhi-Chitkul was unmatched! We carefully planned our days, booked our stay, serviced the bike, packed and unpacked our things and set off at 4 A.M. from Delhi to avoid traffic. While I was sure we wouldn’t be the only ones heading towards mountain respite, by the time we had crossed Zirakpur I understood how bad the situation really was.

In the age of #Wanderlust, travelling to off-beat (or not) places has become an urgent necessity. We all (including me) want to upload the perfect picture, write beautiful posts, look at mountains, look at oceans, pose with monks and locals, post pictures of food and our feet in cold rivers, #sunkissed #blessed #nomad #hashtag etc. etc., the list is endless! And since affordable accommodation has become a reality, there is really nothing stopping us anymore from ticking places we’ve visited on a map.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing wrong with travelling. It’s one of the best ways to meet people from various backgrounds, learn their ways, experience their cultures and feast your eyes on natures marvels. However, the whole concept of travel has been turned on its head because anywhere that is NOT our house and surroundings belong to someone else and therefore, can be damaged or polluted because it’s not our problem, it’s THEIR problem. The number of private vehicles on the road to Shimla, including our bike, created such a fume fest, our faces were caked in black soot by the time we reached our destination. It didn’t take me long to realize we should’ve just travelled the old-school way: by bus.

I’d visited Sangla and passed through Chitkul on a college trip in 2010. The villages were relatively small, the locals self-dependent and the only luxury accommodation belonged to Banjara or Kinner camps which were set up along the Baspa river, away from the town. The number of “homestays” that have come up since then is unimaginable.

Ajay Bhandari (27) and his family have always lived on the outskirts of Sangla village in their old-style, Kinnauri wooden cottage surrounded by a sprawling apple orchard. Usha, his mother, tended the farm and orchard every day when the children were small while his father, Amar Singh worked at the Himachal Road Transport Corporation. With his sister married and his younger brother working in the city, Ajay wakes at the crack of dawn and begins his long list of chores for the day, initiatives he takes on his own. Seeing their neighbors sell their farm lands for a hefty price over the years, they decided to put their own cottage on Airbnb and partake in the tourism wave that had begun to hit Sangla around 2004.

Ajay, Usha and Amar Singh Bhandari in front of their cottage.

The growth of tourism has, however, been a double-edged sword for the locals from Sangla and Chitkul. While the money coming in has been good, the increased number of people visiting the valley has led to an increase in littering and pollution, markedly visible changes in climate, the effects of which can be seen on their apple produce and local crop. Excess snowfall this year ruined Ajay’s apple harvest, forcing him to depend on secondary sources, like tourism, to earn a living.

For Om Prakash Negi, the idea to set up ‘Hindustan ka Aakhri Dhaba’ or ‘The Last Dhaba of India’ in Chitkul was a God send. In 1999, when the last inhabited village on the Indo-Tibet border was slowly gaining recognition, Negi set up a little stall, catering to the few foreigners who visited. Unfortunately, Negi’s last dhaba isn’t the last dhaba any longer, beaten by a couple more along the river, going as far as they were permitted to, to set up. His desperation is apparent, relentlessly seeking investors to expand his business by building a few rooms. By the time his dream is realized, there may not be any space for rooms left.

While the need to construct so many hotels, to keep up with the number of tourists flocking to the hills every summer, is still conceivable, what really made me furious was the way some tourists behaved. The river, lined with cars carrying vacationers from Delhi and Rajasthan, has become a dumping ground. Some recklessly throw their soft-drink bottles into the flowing water, while some blare loud music parked next to a school still in session. Garbage disposal, which was never a big problem because the locals dealt with their own waste individually, is now a travesty. Raveena, a young woman who cooks and provides home-made meals, says her father was approached for the purchase of their small farm, but he refused because the Goddess forbade it. Only the Goddess knows how long they’ll resist selling their land in the face of poverty. The increasing number of tourists in the valley is forcing the state government to blast the mountains with explosives and widen the roads, which in turn, increases the number of landslides, one of which we were stuck in. The fear I felt in that moment, when I saw the rocks above me shudder under the impact, still gives me sleepless nights.

The point of this rant, at the end of the day, is to request everyone who plans on travelling anywhere in India or internationally to travel carefully. Firstly, respect the locals and their space. You may be on vacation, but they still have to wake up early and get to work; it is their home after all. Engage with them and seek permission before barging into their houses and temples, clicking their pictures or playing loud music through the night.

Secondly, it really, REALLY isn’t that much of an effort to avoid littering. I mean, do we eat chips and drink beer and throw the wrappers and cans on our floors at home? Why is it so easy to pollute places we don’t call our own? This blatant recklessness on our part really needs to stop because the snowy peaks and blue oceans we flock to in big groups to see may not stay snowy or blue for very long. I’ll take this opportunity to quote a very popular phrase doing the rounds these days: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL, B#T@H!”

Lastly, because I know I’m beginning to sound very preachy but the trip scared the living daylights out of me, please use public transport! The state buses run efficiently and on-time, except when a natural disaster occurs, like the landslide I was witness to. The recent traffic jam in Shimla was yet another example of the chaos that ensues when we all decide to ‘drive’ or ‘ride’ to the mountains in the name of adventure. Maybe, we’ll learn from it, maybe we won’t.

And maybe, when we’re posting our incredible #travelgram pictures and posts, we can remind ourselves to be honest and show the stark reality of the places we visit and the impact travelling has had on them, especially hill-stations, rather than post glossy, photoshopped images. Witnessing what we’ve done to nature could force us to be more responsible.

(I urge you to follow the page: https://himachalwatcher.com/ for daily, realistic updates).

The Elephant in the Room

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For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with weight. I have had nicknames like moti (fatso), elephant, saand (bull), hippo hurled at me under the guise of humour. I have been excluded from dance competitions, plays and sports in school because I didn’t ‘look’ like I was up to the task. I was always the girl boys called ‘sister’ because I was ‘SO cute and roly-poly’. And even the year I worked out like a crazy person and lost 30 kilos was a crappy year because it was good, but it wasn’t enough.

If I had a rupee for every time someone came to me with health advice out of ‘concern’, I’d be a f**king millionaire. And, mind you, I don’t doubt your concern. I don’t doubt it at all. I just don’t understand how anyone can gauge anyone’s health (or lack of it) by merely glancing at them. It baffles me how, whenever I’m at my very best in life – living a clean and healthy life, have the full support of my family, a loving relationship, an upward moving career graph – one random, thoughtless and sudden comment about my weight can make all of it come crashing down around me. I am, as I have realised, very sensitive to sticks and stones and words apparently.

However, this is not just my story. There are tons (oops!) of overweight people in the world who are made to feel like monsters in their own body by everyone and everything around them, including their own families! In fact, Julie Murphy’s bestselling book Dumplin’ is a treat to read because it explores the trials and tribulations of Willowdean Dickson, the main protagonist and narrator who, despite being big bodied, decides to participate in the local beauty pageant, run by her own demeaning mother, just to spite her. The book in no way paints Willowdean as a saint. She builds walls around her to defend herself from rejection, brutally jeopardises her first relationship because she genuinely believes that Bo, a boy she likes, deserves better and is a complete shit to her attractive best friend Ellen because the pageant begins to mean something to her and Ellen has the potential to win. Her reactions, though, are way too normal and REAL to sideline.

I remember my first foreign trip as an adult to Vietnam. The country was amazing and the friends I travelled with were the best! But, all of this paled in the face of the complete and utter discomfort I felt at not looking as good as them. Not in a dress and definitely not in my beach shorts. I still regret every minute I spent dwelling on my fat body than on enjoying the trip.

It is common knowledge that everywhere in the world right now, girls (and boys), women (and men) who aren’t conventionally thin are slowly and steadily made to feel like imposters in their own bodies. The first assault comes in the form of glossy magazines, detox teas, diet fads, fashion, films and television series. I mean, as amazing as the sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S. was, the representation of ‘Fat Monica’ is just so horribly cringe-worthy! And that’s just one example.

The second assault comes from friends and family who tend only to focus on your weight, no matter what your achievements may be. When you meet a friend after a really long time, you are always first subject to an analysis of your physical form which may or may not gradually gravitate towards enquiries about the rest of your life and work. I have also often come across a group of very thin people who complain excessively about being fat which is just a really shitty thing to do, by the way.

And finally, the third assault comes from the self. Us. Ourselves. Allow me to explain.

A person struggling with weight is always aware of it. We don’t need reminders because we see ourselves in the mirror every single day. I know how hard I have tried to shed the weight till I reached the lowest point of zero f**ks to give. Some bodies miraculously transform from the effort and when I see these transformations, I genuinely feel really happy for the person. I know a lot of my friends and family members who pushed against the tide, day in and day out and emerged victorious. However, there are also people I know, myself included, who have pushed themselves and seen small results and are okay with those results because they make us feel good. Yes, we aren’t stick thin, but the glow on our cheeks makes us happy. But, somehow, people can never believe that we can be happy with ourselves the way we are. Society is conditioned to believe that flab on the body equals an extremely unhealthy person with high cholesterol and high BP and a very sedentary lifestyle. If you argue that you suffer from NONE of the above, they are quick to warn you that it will happen sooner or later. And while this may be true, I personally don’t think it pertains only to people with weight. It is exactly this perception that forced me to look for a quicker, easier option a few years ago. I admit I was attracted to the idea of weight loss pills for a really long time and have even stayed up nights thinking about liposuction. If exercising wasn’t cutting it, surely these options would give me the body I longed for, right?

WRONG! Thank GOD I got over that phase. A lot of people don’t.

British actor, model, activist and founder of the ‘I Weigh’ movement, Jameela Jamil recently released her interview with Sam Smith where they discussed their gruelling experiences with body shaming, especially being in the public eye. The interview was heart-breaking to say the least, but made me realise that even celebrities can be victims of body shaming. Jameela has, in the past year, faced a LOT of flak for calling out celebrities who promote detox teas and weight loss products that are responsible for setting unattainable beauty standards for young people around the world. She has even filed a petition to ban the airbrushing of celebrity photos in magazines, a task no one ever took on before. She has no qualms about flaunting her marks and flabby bits in magazine cover shoots. However, she is just ONE celebrity voice fighting against a system that pushed her to starve herself as a teenager and almost killed her in the process.

But, things are slowly changing. Women are speaking out against all forms of discrimination. Body positivity, as a movement, is gaining momentum and more and more people are fighting to be accepted the way they are. ‘The Mindy Project’, a show produced by and centred around Mindy Kaling (another favourite), was a breath of fresh air when it released because it gave people like me hope. Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ was another on my list because it represented her, the chubby friend, as just another normal person with normal people problems. Recently, actors like Amy Schumer and Rebel Wilson are slowly making their way from being the fat, funny side-kick to lead roles in movies. This is, in no way, a small feat even though it’s still restricted to Hollywood. I hope Bollywood sheds its bias against weight someday, too.

Ultimately, it’s about how you can change things individually. As a person who doesn’t have weight problems, you can start by asking about your overweight friends work or relationship instead of commenting on how they look. You can stop giving health tips or advice without fully understanding what their issues are. You can listen to them crib about their weight but tell them they look good anyway. Basically, the next time you see the elephant in the room, as much as you may want to, suppress the urge to address it.

Source: Tomassi

NO MORE SHOTS, PLEASE!

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The occurrence of the ‘tension not, have a shot’ syndrome on screens these days.

My memory of the first time I got very, very drunk at some ‘cool person’s party’ in college is hazy after the last shot of the night because I basically blacked out. Thankfully, I was surrounded by friends who, not only witnessed my apparently hilarious antics before I puked on myself, but also got me home intact. The experience, that night, I have to admit was NOTHING like the fun-ness they show on American sitcoms and it was a very long time before I went ahead and partied again. But, even after this sickening first occurrence, watching my favourite TV characters drink on screen further fuelled in my head the idea that at some point in my life, drinking was going to become fun. Which it did, but only for a short while.

I finished binge watching Four More Shots Please! on Amazon Prime two days ago. The show, as the title suggests, loosely deals with four women who face life’s challenges every day and drown their sorrows in alcohol every evening at Truck Bar. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to watch it in the first place, but midway through the pilot episode, I felt like I’d need a bottle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes just to get through the show.

So, before I go any further, I take this opportunity to ask: what came first? The drinking habits in shows that influence the audience or the audiences drinking habits that make for fun viewing? I do not have the answer to this, but with the addition of Four More Shots Please to the range of web series hitting the Indian market like TVF Pitchers and Baked, to name a few, that glorify inebriation, I’m sure it’s about to get more confusing. I, for one, have transitioned from regularly spouting the famous catchphrase, Tu beer hai! (You are beer!) from Pitchers to pretending I don’t know where it came from. Because, the world we live in now, follows the simple principle, ‘tension not, have a shot’. If your life is messed up, don’t fret. Hit the bar and watch your troubles dissipate in the cigarette smoke that curls around your head like a halo.

(R-L) Robin, Barney, Ted, Marshal and Lily at McLaren’s.
(Source: Internet)

I never really watched Sex and the City religiously, but it was How I Met Your Mother that led me to believe how much fun hanging out at bars would be and marked the beginning of my very scandalous vocabulary. Even the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy had wild, alcohol fuelled parties, sometimes because of work, sometimes because of bad relationships, bad sex encounters or when they killed a patient. Watching the protagonists settle at the bar every evening (or indulge in day-drinking!) after work to discuss their sad, sad lives seemed like the most uplifting activity to me, someone who had seen how alcoholism had ruined my family as a child. These guys were never really inebriated and continued to go to work, were absolutely successful and had a pretty rad life despite all the drinking. To me then, it seemed that alcohol, if consumed with friends could have a life altering impact on your soul. I too, like them, could be a star at work, the funny girl, the independent one and being a horrible person sometimes wouldn’t matter because all my friendships would last! This is, I have learned now, absolutely untrue, though the glamour of it tempts me on and off every now and then.

But, here’s the thing. This drowning of sorrows post work is something I did for two whole years at my favourite adda in Versova and I almost emptied my non-existent bank account doing that, let alone the blinding hangovers that weren’t a pretty picture the next morning. I occasionally went with my friends, but mostly with my colleagues and a major part of drowning our sorrows entailed long, abuse-filled conversations about love or the lack of it, work, cockroaches in the sink etc., but we actually spent most of our time answering emails and phone calls from our bosses, blurry eyed and speech slurred, trying to arrange meetings with loud music blaring in the background because 9 baje office se nikle par the kaam must go on! (You leave office at 9 P.M., but the work must go on!) A lot of the conversation also centred around bitching about said bosses. By midnight, every drunk person was on the dance floor, gyrating against other drunk complete strangers from lack of space and not once did we ever look as dazzling as those on screen, with our rum infused auras and clothes stained with patches of sweat. I have, since then, given up those daily shenanigans, opting instead for controlled house parties every other month because I realised that daily trips to the bar are injurious to not only your health (obviously), but also your pocket (which you won’t realise when you’re busy screaming, “Drinks on me!”).

With the flush of web-series hitting the Indian market over that last three years, there is constant pressure to generate content that the youth would relate to. Yeah, we all rolled over laughing over films like The Hangover which hyped the need for alcohol and made hangovers funny (ugh!), but is it really necessary to show relationships between lovers, friends, colleagues progress over alcohol? Because, as far as I know, I’ve always forgotten the next morning whatever meaningful stuff I may have said or heard while drinking and frankly, sometimes you’re just hanging out with some people because of the alcohol. You could always question whether the characters you model yourselves around would actually be friends if they didn’t have their bar to settle at and drinks to consume. After all, even Prateik Babbar’s, Jeh in the first episode of Four More Shots Please reminds the women that they are together because of the bar when they’ve vandalised the sign outside (to Fuck Bar *eye roll*), after a night of copious drinking. And although, you may sincerely believe that drinking makes you a better, wiser, more talkative person, with the progression of time, I’m not sure if what we think is solid conversation over drinks is actually that or just crap that sounds really intense.  

The point I’m trying to make here is: drinking isn’t as charming as it is shown on TV and in films. It screws with your head and your health over time and opposite to what these shows portray, your friends will distance themselves from you if you think you can drink every day and keep your wits about you. And, to top it all off, you won’t even realise when and how drinking becomes a crutch. At the end of it all, if you have a problem and think alcohol is the solution, I’d suggest you kick the bottle and have a conversation with someone close instead. It costs nothing. Trust me.

Dear Doctor.

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Dear doctor,

Before I write this piece, I must take the opportunity to state that I am not against doctors or medicine in any way. My General Physician in Mumbai is very good and we have two very capable and thorough doctors in my own family, who we consult whenever in doubt and they’ve always guided us through the best course of treatment. So, I hope this is not seen as an attack against all doctors, but as a request. A request to some doctors to be a little careful with us, their patients.

My last ultrasound, two weeks ago, felt like I was participating in a race. I was asked to get one because my doctor feared my PCOD had returned. I was miraculously declared okay as per the ultrasound, though the pain and the problems still persist.

I, however, was a little uneasy after experiencing what transpired behind the closed doors of a well-known diagnostic centre in Delhi. Sitting in the examination room, bursting from all the water I’d drunk, I could only observe silently how the doctor, the nurse and the assistant went about their work. And, there was a lot of work.

As the clock struck 4, there was tension in the air, a kind of impatient buzz in the room and things started moving really fast. The woman before me was hurriedly ushered behind the curtain, scanned and sent on her way in a jiffy, the doctor shouting uterine dimensions for the assistant to log into her computer. The girl, however, was too busy gossiping with the nurse over an unmarried patient who was sexually active and the doctor’s instructions were blatantly ignored. As they poured over the patient’s history, my name was called out and I was immediately bundled behind the curtain, even before the previous patient had had a chance to fully dress herself. I was told to quickly get on the bed, shoes or no shoes and my stomach lathered with gel. The doctor’s irritation at having to work longer that the stipulated hours was visible. The story has a few more embarrassing quirks that I’ll spare the reader. Even before the examination began, it was over and I was hurried off the bed again and shoved outside before I’d wiped myself clean, struggling with my clothes. I was not surprised. This was the third time I’d experienced problems during an ultrasound. Obviously, nothing had been detected.

This is not an isolated event. A question I posted online about cases of medical neglect – simple or life-threatening – that people may have experienced, led to my inbox blowing up with messages, from India and abroad and I knew it wasn’t just all in my head.

Last year, a psychologist friend went through hell when her mother was diagnosed with a severe chest infection. Their doctor, who knew she was pre-diabetic, went onto to prescribe cough syrups with sugar, causing her sugar levels to hit 608 and a stroke. Ignoring the source, the madness continued when she was hospitalised and the doctor wanted to put her mother on Parkinson’s medicines because he connected her case with that of her distant uncle’s, knowing full well that she had none of the symptoms of Parkinson’s. My friend, even with a degree in Psychology, was ignored when she asked them to first concentrate on lowering her mother’s sugar levels. The events resulted in her mother going into a 40-hour delirium, untreated because it was the weekend and later restricted to a wheel chair for months. In another case, a colleague’s baby was diagnosed with Erb’s palsy after a mishap while giving birth. Her gynaecologist, who forgot to note the baby’s weight during her last ultrasound, assumed he would be 3-3.5 kilos, enough for a normal pregnancy. When the mother found it difficult to push the baby out, the doctor used forceps, yanking the baby out of the womb and as a result, damaging her son’s arm nerves. The baby was 4.7 kilos at birth. Another friend in Sweden was allowed to go 12 days over her pregnancy due date because the hospital was understaffed during the holiday season. In some cases, the doctors have admitted their mistakes, while in some others, they’ve shrugged it off as ‘medical expertise’.

There have also been examples where patients have been refused treatment, based on judgements passed by doctors or nurses on their weight, marital status and lifestyle. In 2006, when Jaymie Vaz was a college student in Mumbai, she began experiencing back-breaking periods which lasted a month or two at a time. She approached several gynaecologists for a solution and was always turned away because they insisted it was because of her weight and college stress. Later, after exercising, following a rigid diet and losing weight, she was ignored by gynaecologists again because they refused to believe she had made any effort in fixing her weight problem. It was only in 2012, in Bahrain, that she was finally taken seriously and diagnosed with PCOD which had gotten worse from lack of treatment. Another friend from Belgrade whose hand broke in an accident at home and rushed himself to the ER was refused urgent treatment and put through a series of drug tests because the doctor was convinced he’d hurt his hand in a drunken scuffle.

The list of stories is endless.

My mother used to say, ‘Tell your doctor everything’; and while that is the best way forward, there are still several hoops a patient jumps before their illness is diagnosed and a conclusion drawn. I obeyed her rule sincerely till I went to a doctor complaining of severe pain in the abdomen, who went into a long interrogation of my life and my choices before declaring it was because of my lifestyle that I was in pain and sent me on my way. She refused to examine me, not even a physical examination but was quick to offer an easy solution to my weight in the form of weight loss pills. Luckily, for me, my pain was from an injury while exercising. Small mercies.

So, I ask, why? Why does this happen? I am fully aware that doctors are burdened with massive responsibilities and have to face the repercussions of any harm that comes to the patients. What I do not understand is these tiny oversights, the small mistakes they make with their patients that could cause serious damage to the person or even death. Relying less on physical examinations and more on scans and tests from diagnostic centers, I have, at times, been asked to take multiple blood tests for the same problem because the doctor wants it done at a specific lab or via someone in-house, rather than rely on the results from another lab. This is a waste of money and time, all of which is irrelevant and let’s not forget the PAIN and bruising from needle jabs!

Most of the time, especially with patients from poorer backgrounds, the family doesn’t even know what questions to ask the doctors and just accept everything that is told to them. When my father was going through chemotherapy for throat cancer, we weren’t even told about the health precautions one has to take when the patient is back home. Everyone was eager to get the job done, but no one bothered with the details. Is it because most people self-diagnose by googling their symptoms that it is assumed we will figure out the details ourselves? Why should my marital status determine whether or not I have cysts in my uterus? These are the questions that often go unanswered because after a tragedy has occurred, it’s too exhausting to go back to the start.

And so, dear doctor, this is a plea. A plea to help us get better. A plea to tell us everything. A plea to consider our lives more worthy than you already do. A plea to factor in the details. Because, tomorrow, if you’ve overlooked something tiny and life-altering, you may administer the best treatment, but it will already be too late.

We promise to trust you. Now, please promise to respect us.

Thank you.

The Dog Lady of Malad

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MIRA DEVI SHETH

I have always marvelled at some people’s ability to devote themselves whole-heartedly to the caring of animals, especially those who take strays under their wing. Naturally, when I heard 85-year-old Mira Devi’s story, I immediately wanted to write about her, document her work so that her efforts are recognised. I began filming her and realised that if there is one firebrand in Malad who is willing to take on anyone who challenges her, it’s definitely Mira Devi Sheth.

Mira Devi Sheth on her evening round.

The first time I saw Mira Devi was during my exploration of Malad when I had just moved here. She was nestled comfortably in an auto-rickshaw, surrounded by buckets of food, supervising the feeding of Evershine Nagar’s stray dogs. The dogs, needless to say, excitedly flocked around her awaiting their evening meal. In her words, she has been doing ‘dog seva’ for 50 years.

Born in 1935, Mira Devi lived with her parents and two sisters at Grant Road. She was an extremely accomplished young girl with a business acumen, trained at the Nashik Bhonsle Military School in swimming, horse riding, shooting and lathi daav (stick fighting). While in college, she enrolled in stitching, typing and telephone operator classes to widen her horizons and secure her future in case of any problems. And, problems she faced.

She was hurriedly married off at the age of 22 through a family arrangement and sent to Orissa. Within 15 days of being wed, her mother-in-law began harassing her for a larger dowry which persisted for two full years. In 1957, when Mira gave birth to a son, the harassment got so bad that she left her husband, took her son and returned to Bombay for good. But, things didn’t get any easier. As a single-mother, she knew she had to work really hard and bring up her son in the best way possible.

Between the years 1963-64, she worked discreetly for two rival cloth mills in Mumbai, without either of them ever finding out. Always on the move, she used her travel time on the local trains to study various subjects, including journalism and business. Apart from taking care of her son and paying for his schooling, MiraDevi spent a lot of her free time taking care of the strays around Grant Road, but with limited medical knowledge and contacts. She also started her own stationary supply and printing business on the side, saving enough money to buy herself a small apartment in Malad.

Mira Devi and her students at the primary school. 

She moved to Malad in 1977 to escape everyone constantly nagging her about her failed marriage and the fact that she was raising her son single-handedly. She and a friend started a private primary school for poor children in her living room which ran for 12 years till her son got married and they had to accommodate his family. It was only when her son gifted her a book about caring for dogs that she began her ritual with the strays of Malad full-swing. Now, 50 years later, if her son disagrees with her activities, she is quick to remind him that it’s all his fault. Her association with the National Association for the Blind for 20 years and the primary school are proof enough of Sheth’s spirit of kindness and love.

An old photograph. 

What began with 5 stray dogs has now grown into a family of 500. Mira Devi has developed an intricate network within the sprawling suburb and is always on call, especially when it comes to abandoned and homeless dogs. She is associated with SPCA Mumbai as well as the neighbouring veterinary hospitals and has admitted a number of sick and injured dogs using her own finances. Over the years, as her commitment to the animals became more serious, she sold all her gold jewellery her mother and sister gifted her to pay for the increasing amounts of food she had to buy.

There has, however, been opposition on all fronts. Be it the local dada of Malad who (according to MiraDevi) went around murdering dogs in order to rob houses minus the ruckus they create with their barking or the BMC who, in 2008, put a fine of Rs.500 on the feeding of stray dogs and birds in public places. But, Mira Devi found a way around all these challenges, continuing to feed the animals to this day. She is afraid of no one and is still, despite her age, willing to fight anyone who tells her she’s wrong. In her case, at the end of the day, the heart wants what the heart wants.

There is a certain spirituality connected with Mira Devi’s dedication to her animals. An ardent follower of Sathya Sai Baba, she bestows a great deal of faith in the love she receives from these animals – an emotion most humans find difficult to express. What others see as a hindrance, she sees as God’s work and this is exactly what motivates her to step out every evening and feed every single stray in the locality.

And, she is not alone. She is accompanied by Raj, her current auto-rickshaw driver who owns 40 cats in the neighbouring slum and whose mother cooks the meat that Mira Devi buys specially for the dogs. Due to religious constrictions, Mira only prepares the vegetarian portions and outsources the meat preparations. Suresh, Raj’s younger brother is a kung-fu trainee and animal lover who joins him in the evenings to help the old lady. There are several little boys and girls from Raj’s slum who join her whenever they can, their fondness for the dogs blatantly apparent. But, as beautiful as this simple act of kindness is, one is acutely aware of the money that goes into this elaborate plan. “It totals up to 60 thousand rupees a month, with the food and auto expenses and the boy’s salaries.” Mira, however, doesn’t believe in hiding away her savings, donating it all to the cause.

Mira Devi with Raj, Suresh and the kids. 

MiraDevi has faced every obstacle with the obstinacy of a determined child. Her only fear at this stage in her life is the fate of her dogs when she passes and this gives her sleepless nights. She is extremely aware of her mortality and doesn’t shy away from it, which is probably why her heart soars when she sees some of the society folk follow in her footsteps. “In my life, I regret nothing,”she says, mirroring a fact I’m absolutely certain of from all the time I’ve spent with her.

MA

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I still remember the day my professor asked the entire class to write a 5000-word essay on our mothers. The memory is etched in my brain, not because of the fantastic piece I wrote on Ma, but because of the massive blank I drew, not being able to put a single word down on paper. The only thing I did manage to do was type the word MOTHER on a word document and save it on my desktop under the same title. The document glared at me every time I was on my computer, but I was at a loss. This was the BIG assignment and after struggling for a week, I finally gave up.

The reason I couldn’t write was not because of some big fall out with my mother or because we were never close. No. Ma is my best friend, always has been. At the risk of sounding like a fool, I’m still one of those kids (adults) who goes crying to my mother when things are tough, even if it means being mocked by my little brother. I couldn’t write 5000 words on her because I didn’t know where to start. I still don’t. How can you write about someone’s personal life, even if you’ve been a part of it?

The first time I ever stopped talking to Ma was in the 9th grade. The rules were simple. Communicating with your parents was considered extremely uncool at school. Teenagers were supposed to rebel. If your mother and father tried to do anything for your own good, you had to roll your eyes and complain about how misunderstood you were. And if you had a crush on a boy, you had to hide it from your folks. If I were ever to go back and meet my younger self, I’d slap myself. I really would. When I read journal entries from that time, I have no clue who that person is.

Now, my parents, themselves belonged to the cool, rock & roll generation, who believed that parents were parents, but also had to be friends with their children. The house was an open field as far as communication was concerned and my brother and I knew we didn’t have to face any of life’s challenges alone. With dad posted in Kashmir most of the time, however, the task then fell on my mother to tackle all our problems single-handedly.

Therefore, when I chose to rebel and stopped talking to Ma, I was shocked to see her fight to make things normal again. She just wouldn’t accept her teenage daughter keeping things from her and frankly, that was the most miserable time of my life too. When I got over that phase, and thank God I did, she became my chief confidant, a post she holds even today.  

Ma is a fighter. She hasn’t had the easiest life and everyone who knows us, knows how tumultuous it’s been. The more shit she faced, the stronger her resolve to fight it. It irked me, her decision to put family first, even if it meant burying a part of herself and her own happiness. Papa had a massive temper, which my brother and I inherited and she was always at the receiving end of our wrath, whether or not she was the cause of it. But, no matter how big the fight, she still wakes us up with a cup of chai and a smile on her face. According to her, there is nothing a good chat (or screaming match) and tea can’t solve and honestly, even with our enormous egos, it’s difficult to hold a grudge against someone who refuses to take no for an answer.

I have, over the years, come to realise the nature of her sacrifices, mostly hidden in plain sight. There were the big ones, like when she put away her big college degree to bring us up because Papa said that one parent had to always be around. We obviously didn’t think it was a big deal then, but I now realise how difficult it can be, having to give up something you’ve earned. And there are the smaller sacrifices, like when she claimed to LOVE the bony pieces of chicken, just to save the chunky pieces for us. Ask her about all this and she says, what all mothers say, “You will only understand when you have your own kids”.

Being our friend meant being a friend to all our friends. I still don’t understand her ability to draw people to her, especially our friends who would rather confide in her than us. There is so much love and awe for her and it just shows what a wonderful person she is. She even brought in her birthday last night with our friends because my brother and I aren’t around!  

So, Happy Birthday Ma. Thank you for being you. Life doesn’t have the guts to knock you down and never will. I’m sorry this is still not 5000 words, but I’ll get there someday. Love.

The Coolest Place on Earth!

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2). DISTRICT CENTRE, JANAKPURI.

My oldest memory of the District Centre, a.k.a Janak Place, was the lines of workers I’d see, while rushing to catch my school bus every morning. Whether it was the chilling winds of winter or the dreaded summer heat, the workers moved like clock-work, carrying water bottles under their arms, determined to perform their morning bowel duties anywhere they found a spot in the vast white complex that stood abandoned, down the road from our house. It was no wonder then that the complex was referred to as ‘Potty Centre’, which had a few offices at the back, but lay invisible to our peripheral vision for a long time.

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District Centre.

And then came McDonald’s! Before this, pizzas and burgers were still things we only dreamed of, unless an aunt or uncle visited from abroad and these dreams actually came alive. To have a McDonald’s open right next door became the second greatest thing to being alive. The Delhi Development Authority took over and cleaned up the ‘poopy’ mess, the buildings re-painted, the giant, yellow and red ‘M’ logo beckoning every passerby and suddenly, everyone flocked to fancy Janak Place, named after King Janak from the Ramayan, as if all roads led only there. ‘Opposite District Centre’ became THE landmark to my house and I beamed with pride when the kids at school recognised ‘the cool, new place’ in Janakpuri! The Vanilla McSwirl was the greatest attraction, not for its taste, but because it cost 5 bucks and parents didn’t mind buying a scoop to stop their whiny kids from ruining their evenings out. Young school boys and girls sat at McDonald’s for hours and hours over a single burger, blushing and batting their eyelids at each other, too nervous to speak. It was a known thing then, that if a boy ever asked you meet him at McDonald’s, it was absolutely, one hundred percent, a date.

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The death and re-birth of McDonald’s.

The people of Janakpuri, and beyond, took to Janak Place like ants take to food or Apple fans take to the latest I-phone. It didn’t take very long for a Barista to open, followed by Music Land and Wordsworth. Pocket money, Birthday money. Diwali money, Christmas money, ANY money was locked away till you had enough to purchase the latest CD’s or the newest Harry Potter, factors that determined your existence on Earth and friendships at school. You could beg, borrow or steal, but at the end of the day, if someone had read a book before you, rest assured, you’d have to kill yourself to protect yourself from spoilers. There was a new restaurant every corner you turned and the food options blew our little minds! Toy-sellers Gopal Prasad Gupta and Rakesh Suri set up shop on opposite sides of McDonalds, spots they hold even today, 15 years later.

A Crafts Bazaar opened up in the centre of the complex, a local version of Dilli Haat and cheaper and while women shopped for hours, the kids were promptly given 100 rupees to play 10 games of their choice at the gaming arcade, with its colourful, electric mini cars and air-hockey tables. Janak Place soon got its first movie hall in 2004 and metro stations on either end and the world was never the same again.

I remember being floored by Bunty aur Babli, Bollywood’s very own ‘Bonny and Clyde’ and the first movie I watched at Satyam, planning to use similar tactics to take over the world with my brother. Things were moving fast and property rates in Janakpuri sky-rocketed over-night. This was a good time in the history of the locality.

The fantasy that was Janak Place quickly became a horror when it came into the spotlight due to a number of successful suicides, quickly earning the name ‘Suicide Towers’. Rakesh Suri saw four people die in front of him, young boys and girls who climbed to the 6th or 7th floor and jumped off. He remembers trying to save a girl who had jumped off the second floor, with not an injury on her, but died anyway. District Centre was in the news for all the wrong reasons, with people considering it haunted because of the several deaths that took place in a short time. Grills were installed on every floor with immediate effect, but the impact lasted for a couple of years, until the suicides were altogether forgotten. By this time, Janak Place was teeming with street children and their families, who were addicted to sniffing glue and begged for a toke of Korex correction glue over money. If things weren’t looking good, they became worse when Pacific Mall opened in Subhash Nagar, drawing all the crowds and leaving Janak Place an abandoned mess.

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Wordsworth, with it’s shutters down.

In my head, Janak Place is a fighter. When you google it, you’re faced with a ton of bad reviews about the place and I don’t blame the people. The place is a wasteland. Wordsworth, the book shop, was the first to go because, sadly, people don’t read enough and especially not today, when you have access to information and the latest e-books on your phone or computer. This was followed by Music Land, when the owners realised that the latest cassettes and CD’s weren’t flying off shelves anymore. The restaurants are mostly empty owing to food ordering apps. Gopal and Rakesh have resorted to setting up their mats, laden with toys, only in the evening and earn about 150-200 rupees a day. Ambika Pillai took her salon and ran, what seems like, a million years ago. McDonalds was in the midst of a massive lawsuit and had shut its doors on everyone for a while. But, with all of this backlash, the place still sees enough families on a Sunday afternoon, their little kids crowding the chocolate fountain stall or the tinier one’s in their remote operated mini-cars, banging into people on purpose. The most recent addition to the food stalls was the Kolkata puchka guy whose puchka game is on point, but dangerous if you’re brave enough to exceed two plates.

The goods at the Craft Bazaar are still beautiful and cheap, defeating the branded stores that are still holding on, lining the higher floors. The complex still houses a lot of smaller gadget repair shops, Xerox and printing places and trinket shops, tucked away at the back, hidden in plain sight. And you will still find the scores of couples, crouched beside one another on rusting benches, planning their futures. To everyone who lives or has ever lived in Janakpuri, though, District Centre a.k.a Janak Place, its tall, white towers covered in grime, will always be the “coolest place on Earth”.

AMMA

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It wasn’t until her death in 2011 that we realised Amma was mortal. She was just as human as the rest of us, waiting for her turn to show up at the gates of heaven and demand to see her loved ones.

She was hired the week I was born, when my grandfather finally gave into my mother’s persistent pleas that she needed a little help running the house, with a new baby in tow. And so, Amma came to work the very next day, taking charge of the household and becoming a part of our lives for 23 years.

Born Ram Devi, Amma was always called Amma. She seemed like the kind of person who had been old all her life, her face weathered with time and the name just stuck. It wasn’t just us, though. Every house down the street, where she worked, knew her as Amma.  This was the time when house-maids were part of a hierarchical system and since Amma was the oldest and had come to B-Block Janakpuri first, she got to pick the houses she wanted and everyone else had to fight for the left-overs. So, the time she began working for us, she was also working ten other houses in the neighbourhood, hopping from one to the next till she took the bus home in the evening.

Amma had lost her husband very early in life, leaving her with three sons and not a penny in hand. She barely had time to grieve and got to work immediately, scouring housing colonies in Uttam Nagar near Kali Basti where she lived, marketing her skills door to door, even begging for work. She had a good reputation as far as her work was concerned, which earned her more houses in the area and soon, one of her sons was graduating from school. This was one of the happiest moments of her life, but it was short-lived. The boy died in a road accident, which should have knocked her down emotionally, like when children die before parents, but not her. Amma was back at work the next day, striving to do better with her remaining kids. So, she left Uttam Nagar and decided to hit Janakpuri, an upcoming locality in the 80s and took over 3/4th’s of our block.

Amma (2010)

Amma’s voice fluctuated between a shrill croak and a low, gurgling rumble that could both scare the living day-lights out of us. Because of her small, skinny frame, we’d miss her comings and goings and sometimes, she’d creep up behind us, when we were engrossed in a book or mugging a lesson, her evening tea in hand and begin humming a tune, something that always made us jump and fall off our chair in shock. This was often amusing to her and she’d laugh out loud, clapping her hands, her toothless mouth in its fullest glory. I can still hear the ring of her laughter at the back of my mind somewhere.

Draped in her pink or purple floral saree, she’d trudge to work every day without fail. Her younger sons were married and she entrusted the care of the house to their wives. She had never wanted her daughters-in-law to work, not unless they were faced with challenging circumstances and she made sure of it. All she needed was a hot cup of tea every morning before she set off to work and a meal when she returned.

Every time Amma saw good days, they were inadvertently followed by bad days. By the time I was on my way out of school, she had developed a cataract in her eye, the milky glaze keeping her from performing the simplest tasks. That year, families that had employed her for years and years, gave up on her and she lost a lot of jobs all at once. Her family, as a result, gave her trouble because suddenly she wasn’t earning as much money and was, therefore, “useless”. Those days, Amma came to work either angry or sad. She’d sometimes break down while discussing her problems with my mother or reprimand her imaginary sons in our kitchen while washing the utensils. She was afraid she’d lose all her work and be forced to sit at home and deal with them all day. But, we weren’t done with Amma yet. Yes, she wasn’t as good with work anymore, unable to see food stains on plates, her swabbing in patches across the floor and she couldn’t hear properly either. Her hilarious exchanges with my deaf grandfather would result in them screaming at each other but in vain, with the rest of us screaming louder to get through to both of them. But, in any case, we weren’t ready to let go of her.

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I saw her less and less when I went to college, but when I did, she’d greet me with so much love and excitement. She was older now, reduced to a shadow of her former self, a shadow that sat in odd corners and talked to herself in broken, incomprehensible grunts and murmurs. You could watch her endlessly without her realising it because she had lost about 80% of her vision by then. The only thing she made clear was that she was prepared to die and that was that. Despite the eye operations, the cataract kept coming back until she was done trying to fix it. It was only when she was hit by a car crossing the road that she finally realised she had to stop. My father asked her to stay put at home and promised to pay her whatever we could afford (then) as a monthly stipend. She was supposed to come back the following month to collect her salary, but she never made it. Amma died in 2011, shortly after my grandfather and one part of the house, which they usually occupied, each of them lost in their own heads, fell incredibly silent. You can still sometimes hear their screechy banter, if you sit still and listen.

Amma will always hold a special place in our hearts, where reside all the loved one’s we’ve lost over the years. Our Amma.

UNREMARKABLY, REMARKABLE.

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1). COMMUNITY CENTRE, JANAKPURI

This may seem like one of the most unremarkable places on the map of Delhi and in some way, it is. It isn’t steeped in the rich history that the older parts of Delhi are and neither does it have the unique crumbling architecture that takes you back in time. But, for me and the thousands living in Janakpuri (West Delhi), the Community Centre has always been our hub. It was where ALL the banks known to Indian’s were stationed; where our grandparents stood in long lines to update their passbooks, with us in tow. Of course, there had to be incentives – chaat or candy floss or ice cream – to have us stand with them so long! The square was also home to bustling tea shops, lunch stalls, ONE stationery shop that thrilled me beyond measure, the dry-cleaners (who, for a long time, charged for dry-cleaning but conducted regular washes), ROOP-RANG which sold colourful soaps and shampoos and the big pharmacy run by a Sikh gentleman and his two sons.

Bank work was and always has been incredibly boring to me. As an adult, entering a bank still gives me a dull displeasure in my stomach, something I have to fight vehemently because I can’t whine about handling the money I earn (Ugh). The only thing capable of motivating me to embark on this journey is the Satya Prakash chaat stall that has existed and stood in the same place ever since I was a toddler. Managed by different men over the years, I am confident the taste has remained unchanged. I have been so in love with his gol-gappas that I distinctly remember telling my mother in my teens that I was going to marry the owner and spend the rest of my life churning out (and devouring) his exciting treats. This was the only life goal I was actually serious about till I moved for college, my love for gol-gappas was replaced by my love for beer.

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Satya Prakash corner at it’s busiest!

The second place that I loved visiting as a child was the stationery shop managed by a man with a hearing and speech impairment. Apart from items of academic importance, his shop also included greeting cards, shiny, crazy balls (yes, they were called that) and slam books that were a mighty rage back then. He also had an endless supply of Hero fountain pens that broke often and had to be replaced every month and scented erasers in all shapes and sizes. People were often impatient with him, displeased at his disability, but my mother’s big-eyed, angry looks would shut them up and put them in their place. As a result, he was always eager at our arrival and we knew him as the teddy bear like, nameless man with a giant smile on his, otherwise sad face. I still sometimes stand in front of his crumbling shop, his items faded and less shiny, an abysmal, brown discolouration on the walls and I watch him sitting in the corner of his forgotten shop. He stopped bothering about the hordes of customers flocking towards the brand-new stationery shop a long time ago. I buy a pen or a postcard for old time’s sake but I know he’s forgotten me and I’m okay with that. The shop and him stand frozen in the frenzy of development and competition in Janakpuri.

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The Photo studio and the stationery shop (left to right)

The Community Centre is presently steeped in dualities, juxtaposing the old with the new, the colourful hues of modernity with the aged, sepia toned look I mentioned before. There’s a huge, new café in the centre of the square, along which are numerous tandoori stalls that have stood the test of time, producing a variety of tikkas to the drinking public (mostly men after 8 P.M.) sitting in their fancy cars, a stream of loud music blaring from each of them. It’s what the people are used to versus the options they have been presented with and I have come to the firm understanding that people are only momentarily excited by new spaces, but immediately lapse into their old ways when bored. This is the case with Janakpuri and the people residing here. It’s no wonder then that people visit the numerous malls coming up in every nook and corner but also prefer their local, grimy food stalls to the plated delights offered in air-conditioned restaurants. I always find the tea stalls brimming with people, loudly conversing with each other, as opposed to the well-lit but often-empty restaurants that have taken over the area.

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Pishori’s Chicken Corner!

I know all these folks and don’t know them at all. Pishori, the chicken tikka man, recently handed over the responsibility of his stall to his son, once a puny little sardar, who is now taller and bigger built. They always recognize my mother’s voice and broken Hindi, sending the orders directly home without having to note down the address. Needless to say, we always get the soft, succulent chicken pieces, the pick of the lot! The Sobti’s of Sobti Medicos are an energetic bunch, with a vast knowledge of things beyond medicine and occasionally found reprimanding the odd Benadryl addict about his ways. There’s the lady who sells purses and pouches opposite the ATM, who spends more time gossiping with her customers than actually selling her goods. The Fujifilm shop that is perpetually closed and obviously of no use anymore. I tried my luck with them last month, calling and asking if they’d have old film rolls to spare and was laughed at and told to go digital already! The single, thriving liquor shop which has now multiplied into several of them, placed on all four sides of the square, teeming with alcohol enthusiasts (drunks). The chole-kulche stall run by Ram Niwas, who is my mother’s favourite person to this day! And the chai-wala, whose stall I visited earlier today and munched on matri’s with tea with my Ma and I realised that, come what may, Community Centre will always stand out in my memories for not changing like the rest of the city did.

 

 

 

 

 

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HAMPI, HAMPERED.

WARNING: This is not a travel post. This is an informative post, so you aren’t bullied like I was.

Hampi is a geological wonder. It is visually stunning and the ancient temple structures situated around the Tungabadra river are simply astounding. The place had been on my travel list for a really long time and I finally made it there two weeks ago. (Yay.)

This piece, however, is NOT about Hampi or the temple structures – which if you google, you will find tons of information about OR you could just go there and see for yourself this amazing wonder of nature. No, seriously – how those rocks manage to stay stacked up on each other is, plain and simple, awesome.

I am going to focus on the boat rides that ferry tourists across the Tungabadra, which separates Virupapura Gadde (or Hippie island) from the more religious (party phobic) Temple side (Hampi). I have to say that no matter how beautiful the tourist spot, if the transportation systems are bad, your whole experience can go to the dogs.

At the entrance to Virupapura Gadde stands a barely visible board that lists the rates for ferry boat rides and coracle rides, respectively.

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Rates for Ferry and Coracle rides.

Even Hampi’s Wikipedia page states: ‘The ferry boat is available at the river side near Virupaksha Temple. Ferry trip costs Rs. 10 one-way and usually stops by 6 PM, depending on the crowd waiting to cross over. Coracle rides are available at INR 50 per head throughout the day and are available until 9-10 PM. If you don’t like getting your feet wet in a coracle, ensure you don’t miss the ferry.’ (http://wikitravel.org/en/Hampi)

Didn’t mind the wet feet, but the prices were steep! The boatmen are bullies who have a massive monopoly on the operations of the ferry boats and coracles, leaving the tourists helpless and without choice. The ferry boats charge between Rs. 50-100 per head, depending also on the number of people in the boat. If the total head count is less than 10, the boatmen can choose to postpone (or cancel) your trip across the river. I say boatmen, because they all gang up against you and travel, in the boat, with you to make sure you don’t run off without paying the quoted amount. I kid you not.

These guys also assign specific boats to each side – for example: Boat 1 will go from point A to B and Boat 2 will go from B to A, but never the twain shall meet. Confused? Basically, the boat that brings tourists from Hippie island to Temple town will go back to Hippie island empty because that’s against their rules. Wasting petrol, however, is a hobby.

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The Ferry Boat that refused to move.

My friend and I faced hell when we got stuck on the wrong side of the river after a long day’s walk. No matter how much we begged the boat guy to ferry us across, he just sat there, smoking his cigarette, waiting for the boat to fill up. It eventually did not fill up and we had no choice but to pay a hefty sum, dying of hunger and ready to pass out.

And then there are the coracle boats. Don’t even get me started on the coracles. Yes, I sat in one. Yes, it was fun. But paying 200-250 bucks for a 45 second boat ride was the biggest expense on an otherwise, fairly budget trip.

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Bad picture of a coracle.

The people in the area say that due to some illegal land dealings, as far as Hippie island is concerned, this issue has remained largely ignored by the government, who’d rather let these boatmen operate how they want than get their hands dirty.

Hampi is a truly lovely place. I swear. Besides this one (major) issue, the trip was perfect. There is plenty to gush about, but nobody talks about the smaller problems that can really bust everything good about a place you’re visiting. Hence, this post.

Let’s hope this is looked into very, ‘ferry’ soon!