Set Stories #2: To Pee or Not To Pee

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Imagine this. You’ve been shooting for a month. Your body clock has succumbed to the unpredictability of time but you struggle with your washroom routine. You feel the panic rising in you as you try to convince yourself that you will get your chance on set, because of course, no one expects you to shoot all day without a washroom break, right? So, you get ready in a rush and head to set. You feel the discomfort rising – pressure and hunger, a double whammy – and you force it out of your mind to focus, instead, on shot breakdowns, last minute set adjustments, script changes, costume adjustments etc. Someone informs you that breakfast is finally ready and you glance at your watch. You have 20 mins before the first shot. You race to the breakfast stall, shovel a few mouthfuls, dunk your plate in the washing crate and begin your hunt for a washroom. You go to one production assistant who directs you to the next and again, till you’re 5 mins away from the first shot and close to tears, only to be told that the washrooms are occupied by actors and the heads of department and to “please adjust”.

In all the years I’ve worked on set, not once has my quest for a ‘women-only’ washroom been successful. In the midst of Covid-19, as the film industry gears up to resume production in India, it’s safe to say that the lack of segregated washrooms on sets still remains an issue. And the ones who bear the brunt of it are women. “The biggest problem is during outdoor shoots,” says Trupti Kataria, a Producer at Rolling Can Productions, “Women automatically choose to drink less water to avoid using washrooms, which can be very unhealthy”. Trupti, who freelanced as an associate producer before setting up her own production house, now tries to provide separate washrooms on her projects. “When you’re working with a women-led production house, you can tell the difference, because the needs that are usually overlooked on sets, are taken care of.” She goes on to state that it is the female members of the art department who suffer the most on shoots.

During set up days, it isn’t uncommon to find only a single dedicated washroom to be used by the entire department. Production Designer, Sarada Ramaseshan says, “Even big studios like Kamalistaan, Filmalaya and Film City have very poor washroom facilities. It becomes impossible on longer shoots because even asking for access to a green-room toilet is denied citing budget constraints.” Sarada also points to the unspoken hierarchy on sets during shoot. “The director, producer and cinematographer are assigned rooms or vanity vans with clean washrooms; costume and make-up use those assigned to the actors. Only the art department is shunned.” She often has to head home or to a nearby café to wash up mid work. “It’s humanness that’s missing. Why does one have to throw their weight around for what is a basic right. Clean washrooms and proper meals aren’t things you should even have to demand.”

Female assistants are often forced to hold in their pee for hours at a stretch which lead to further complications. What’s startling is how these hazards are normalized on every shoot. “Thanks to the stellar condition of toilets for women in India, I have acquired the ability to temporarily forget I even have a bladder” says, Filmmaker Mithila Hegde. “It is a constant preoccupation on my mind, as it is for most filmmakers, often interfering with the process of filming.” On one shoot, Mithila contracted a Urinary Tract Infection from going without a washroom-break for 12 hours at a stretch. Upon confronting the production team, they expressed concern but nothing more than lip service was offered. Assistant Director, Shloka Patwardhan says, “Not one of the sets I have worked on, so far, have had a dedicated women’s washroom. We are expected to use the Direction / Production toilets which we all know are also used by male crew members. By the time you get to one, it is in no condition to be used.” On shoots, Shloka has even gone to the extent of pasting ‘WOMEN ONLY’ signs on vanity doors, but in vain.

This, however, isn’t just a problem in India. An article featured in the Los Angeles Times highlights a similar problem in Hollywood. Deborah Jones, a set decorator mentions her struggles on film and television sets with “abysmal toilet facilities”, “insufficient bathrooms, places to wash hands” and being “told to drive down the street and use the one at Ralph’s supermarket.” In India too, women often have to leave set in search of a restaurant or café nearby just to use the washroom, provided you’re shooting in the city. I remember once, during a night shoot, having to leave a shot mid-way and walk through a village in Gujarat, in pitch darkness to a washroom 20 minutes away. Needless to say, this special treatment was meted out only to female crew members. God help you if you’re on your period. “Women on sets seek morbid comfort in the fact that they’re not alone,” says Mithila, “With my constant battle against the patriarchy while negotiating with my own internalized patriarchy and the need for gender neutrality, I often feel guilty about expecting a separate washroom on sets.”

The lack of gender representation on Indian film sets has long gone under the scanner. Women technicians and assistants are often relegated to the art, costume and make-up departments and have to fight to earn a prominent place on film crews. This is predominantly based on the idea that they may not be able to “handle” shoots as efficiently as their male counterparts. In recent times, however, there has been a slight shift; gender roles on set are slowly changing and making way for more female and LGBTQ+ representation. Yuva Dancing Queen fame, Ganga, an actor and trans-woman, who was recently seen in Atanu Mukherjee’s Wig, encouraged this changing mindset within the industry and the fact that filmmakers and casting directors are finally looking to cast actors from within the community. “I am treated with respect on set, something that is not afforded to me in the ‘real’ world,” she says, “Being a known face across Maharashtra hasn’t helped in how people perceive me and my community.” Ganga’s stories from public washrooms are chilling and highlight the deep-rootedness of gender discrimination in India. “More often than not, it is women who create a big scene when they find me using the women’s section of public toilets. Men’s washrooms are scarier because they either lock you in, harass you or touch you inappropriately. In comparison, being on set is much better.”

In 2017, filmmaker Sukant Panigrahy started an initiative called ‘Ladies First’ in collaboration with the Association of Cine and Television Art Directors and Costume Designers. According to an article in Scroll.in, Panigrahy, along with a group of film technicians, was attempting to highlight “the lack of safe and clean women’s washrooms on movie sets”. National Award-winning costume designer, Lovleen Bains who was quoted in the article said, “Everyone thinks that it’s a glamourous industry, but the working conditions are pathetic, especially for women.” Costume designer, Pia Benegal said, “We ask the actors if we want to use their toilets, and they are normally generous. But when they are changing, napping, or meeting someone, they don’t allow us in.”

It’s been three years since the initiative and the problem persists. Being vocal about systemic issues within the industry comes with its own share of problems. You go without work for longer periods of time than usual, are deemed either “too angry” or “too problematic” and if you get past that, there is a chance you will be the victim of gaslighting by those you stand up to. However, there has never been a better time to demand and enable change, especially in the film industry that thousands dream of being a part of. If funds can be allotted for masks, sanitizers, packaged food, safety placards and the like, a few washrooms extra shouldn’t be a big deal at all!

Written originally for The Grit News.

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.”

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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.