Monday, September 04, 2006

30th Aug, 2006

i couldn't write anymore yesterday. its too hard.

i encountered more of the same today. went to the muslim area of ahmedabad to visit a ngo called samerth that is working on teaching peace to the children and helping rehabilitate women.
and i still can't write about it. after all, what is there to write about? what happened happened. its been happening for centuries, it took a particularly ugly form in 2002 (though still not the ugliest the world has seen), and it continues today - in the horrifying acts of sudan and in the minds and hearts of most indians.

last night i had a dream. i can't remember it quite clearly but there are parts that are very lucid. there was a technique that someone had invented - of turning humans into invincible robots. i visited the lady who had invented and was vaguely disturbed by the potential evil it could unleash. then i came home and was very happy to see someone (an older black guy?!?!) who was apparently a friend of the family. he joked that he'd take me to bed and carried me into the bedroom and we were both laughing about it. once we got to my bedroom, i saw that the bed was decorated with rose petals and candles. i realized that it was probably my husband (yes, i had a husband in the dream - it was apparently ok to have extramarital sex in that world), and i apologized to the friend, saying that it was so sweet of my husband to decorate the bed like that so i had to go to him. then i found my husband in another bedroom and he was getting ready to go bed, all normal and drowzy and not in any mood for pleasing me. he had no idea about the decorated bed. i was puzzled but didn't see anything sinister in this. suddenly, my husband, the family friend and a third guy whose character is fuzzy at this point, turned into the invincible killing machines and started approaching me. i was terrified.

i usually don't make anything of dreams. but today, i retired early in deep depression and have been crying my heart out for what seems like hours. its that same feeling - where suddenly, everything that was familiar and much loved my you has taken on a sinister lethal appearance. and now, you feel so betrayed. and so horribly bitter. because, like in the dream, i knew about the danger, but didn't do anything at the time.

i feel a deep sense of revulsion towards other human beings right now. yes, its a small minority that actually perpetrated the horrible acts, but its a miniscule pathetically trivial minority that tried to stop them too. where were the rest? where are the rest? where was i?

i think i am crying because my insides are being ripped by this duality within me - one side that wants to fix the world, is ready to do anything, is planning padyatras and is ready to embark on hunger strikes, anything - and the one side that is crippled by this horrible inertia, a deep sense of inadequacy, impotency, an insecurity that i am so quick to take things on and so ineffectual in carrying them out.

will i leave gujarat and forget? is that all i can do?
29th Aug, 2006

things are incredibly depressing in the state of gujarat.

i feel suffocated and want to throw up.
26th Aug, 2006

thought i'd use this space to brainstorm on things i could do with my life.

right now, i have the luxury of time - i'll work for exxon for at least a year, the lightness of load (more on that later) - and i absolutely revel in fabulous unconditional support of everyone who loves me, who have looked fondly at my forays into various random fields and are supremely confident that i'll settle on something and do a remarkable job with it.

if only i could decide what to do. and make the decision in a finite amount of time so that i don't spend a lifetime deciding. although, thats not a bad way of spending a lifetime, but i digress.
So of course, i have various options. Today i'd like to talk about peace. and no, this is not a digression, this is something around which i would like to weave a career. Specifically i would like to achieve two objectives:-Hindu-Muslim peace and-India-Pakistan peace,both of which are correlated to some extent, and vastly different in others. one could easily make a lifetime out of promoting just one or the other. for me however, they are both issues that are close to my heart and i can think of common techniques, common obstacles that one would face in achieving both.
Where do you start working on something like this? well, i have a readymade opportunity working for utthan in gujarat. i build grassroots experience and credibility and then look at scaling up the efforts. it would be difficult - i'd be shuttling back and forth between delhi and gujarat but its only an hourlong flight and definitely doable.

what specifically would i do? well i have no idea - there are the activities of utthan that i could start with and look at expanding to the rest of the state somehow. and initiate dialog with various groups in the delhi area that are working on the same thing. then expand my network to include grassroots activists in pakistan and holding anti-communalism workshops in both countries to slowly build a network for peace.

none of this is new. its being done even now by some very capable people. the difference is that most people are working on this issue as a part of other programs, such as nafisaben incorporating peace into the gender and water programs, and several prominent feminist activists adding peace as an important component of their activities. in my case, peace would be the central goal - holding workshops, bringing communities together, exploding corrosive myths.
with my background and my baggage, i can't think of a better way to serve my land, my people and my own personal dreams.

as a footnote, speaking of baggage, let me relate my anecdote about "keeping the load light". i had rented a jeep to explore new mexico. one evening, after a grueling, exhilarating drive around suicidal hairpin curves, i got to a set of historic cave dwellings called Gila National Monument. I wandered around with the appropriate curiosity, asking all the right questions, trying to absorb as much as i could. then i sat down next to an old man who was holding forth on the caves. he worked for the monument as a guide, showing people around. turns out he had arrived there when young, and spent the night camping in the caves and had been very touched by the atmosphere, the aura, if you will, of the caves and had always dreamed of returning. he then went forth in the world, trying a lot of different callings, was an actor, a clerk, a father and whatnot. but somewhere inside, he remembered the caves and ended up coming back. now, he is not only the guide but is also a prominent activist, mobilizing the native american communities to gain recognition, and several other things (much of which, unfortunately i don't remember, but i do recall being quite impressed by all his activities). the important thing is that he loves what he's doing and is very good at it. the combination of the two equals a happy life. and i told him that i was searching for a calling do, and finding it hard to settle down. he laughed and said that it had taken him an incredibly long time too. but time doesn't matter. what matters is that when it does appear in front of you - that golden combination - you should be able to drop everything else and go for it. don't add any unnecessary burdens, futile responsibilities that will hold you back when the time comes. keep your load light.
25th Aug, 2006

Last night I was talking to nafisaben. She was telling me about darbar women. Darbars are apparently some sort of caste in gujarat (where else?) that are particularly barbaric towards their women.

nafisaben was telling me of a time when they went into a darbar house. they are extremely proud and maintain vast houses and will never show their poverty even if it exists. when they went in, the women weren't allowed to come out since their faces could not be shown to strange men. they had to look out through a crack in the door to see what was happening. then nafisaben and the other women went into the room and talked to the women. even then, they had to talk in whispers. apparently, if their voices would be heard outside, they would be beaten. these women were allowed to leave their houses but under strict constraints. a caretaker would have to accompany them holding an umbrella with a veil around it which they would hold over the women so as to cover them as they walked. women who were driven, even by drivers who had been in the family for decades, drove in cars with curtains in the backseat hiding the women. the drivers had never seen their faces and only knew them by their voice.

shocking as it was to hear these stories, i couldn't help but thinking that these traditions had allegedly seeped into some of these communities via their contact with muslims. in the muslim community, suffocating purdah norms are so common as to be taken for granted. not to mention some of the other accompanying horrors - the honor killings, the female genital mutilation, and in some cases, complete absence of human rights for women.

a note about the female genital mutilation. i just learned (via nafisaben - who else?) that this practise is still common among bohras. we are the only community that does this outside some of the african muslim communities. i have to find out more about this.

the sad thing is that i have absolutely no idea and no inclination to address the evils among my own community, be it the numerous gender issues in the bohra community or the issues of dowry that still prevail in my newly adopted delhi community. i am afraid of ostracism. yes, i said it. now i have to come to terms with it. if i'm so afraid of raising these issues in my own community, how can i possibly even begin to imagine the horrors of standing up for women's rights in villages where the women have to face the prospect of being completely rejected by all whom they love. how can i begin to comprehend the courage of the countless women who have faced that risk, and all too often suffered the harshest of punishments for it?

i feel like a hypocrite talking about human rights.

after my outburst at nishant yesterday, i have been doing a lot of introspection. why do i always lash out at him for being biased against muslims - why am i so touchy on this subject? is it a sense of guilt that i abandoned that community for its flaws instead of staying in and fighting them? i still can, i guess, but all these years i have managed to put so much distance between myself and the bohra community that nobody can accuse me of being a bohra anymore. i don't have any legitimacy left in the community, and no hope of finding anyone who will listen to anything i say.

excuses, i know. again, the sense of hypocrisy builds.
24th Aug, 2006

Spent a good part of today confronting my bitterness.

Riots, biases, violence has always moved me. There were the World War II bedtime stories told by my dad and the glee expressed by my brother at the senseless violence in movies that i tried to enthusiastically emulate. But it was the Bombay riots of '93 that woke in me a feeling that i had never felt before. Well two feelings: fear and selflessness. As the mob ran through my street, pelting storefronts and yelling things i did not understand, i stood with my back to the wall, praying fervently, not for my self (shockingly) but for my father and brother. I had heard of the stuff they did to men, particularly that they did it to them in front of the women and i was terrified. that week my dad and brother left for the US, and we were again scared to death that their taxi would be stopped on the way to the airport. it was a week that caught me by the collar and forced me to grow up. forced me to acknowledge that when it came down to brasstacks, i was in fact a muslim. forced me to acknowledge that human beings have a dark side.
since then, i've done a lot of thinking on this topic - trying to understand why people kill those that they do not normally hate. not to that extent anyway. i still don't know, but all this thinking has got to stop. its whats making me bitter.

as i find out about the various episodes of genocide around the world, read the books, understand the theories... still nothing. and this week in gujarat has precipitated an explosion of bitterness. as i travel around the state, i stare at the faces and wonder whether they participated in the carnage, what they think about muslims, whether the waiters that serve me at restaurants have blood on their hands. and i hear the villagers talk forthrightly about their biases against other communities. i didn't think all this accumulated in a pressure chamber inside me, but it did.

and as usual, nishant served as my safety valve. poor guy - i accused him of not eating fish due to his bias against muslims or something ridiculous like that. the fish discussion was triggered by a talk we were having about fun stuff to do in indonesia and i was excited about living off a sailboat and eating the fish that we caught. he instantly asserted that he would under no circumstance eat fish and something snapped inside me. i think the talk the previous day with the harijan community in the village had affected my subconscious deeply. they had said that the fish-eating muslims are usually not allowed in the village.

after this episode i talked to nafisaben. as usual, she had a whole warehouse of horrific stories like that - when their team was relatively new and had three dalit members, some villagers would insist that those dalits had to bring their own cups so they didn't "soil" their vessels. The team decided to take a stand on this and told the dalit members not to take their own vessels. When the villager rudely asked them where their cups were, they humbly said that they hadn't brought it and it was ok, they didn't want water anyway. The team was up in arms and said that if the dalits didn't have water they wouldn't either. the villagers were furious and accused the utthan team of insulting them. apparently the situation escalated to a point where it was almost violent. and i'm ashamed to say this, but while nafisaben was saying this story, i kept hearing nishant's voice in my head saying "the sight of meat disgusts me". oh what tangled webs we weave.

what i need to do is find something constructive to store my bitterness in. its eating at me right now, and i want so bad to get out of this horrid state (notice that state has two meanings here).
23rd Aug, 2006

Sometimes people blow me away like a withered fallen leaf.

One person is of course Nafisaben. Her attitude, her what-do-you-mean-i-can't-get-what-i-want, followed by the trademark so-what-can-we-do-to-get-me-what-i-want stances. She's one of a few people (along with so far.. hmmm.. Gandhiji, Sainath and my husband) who I count as great. I can't believe i lucked into getting to know her as well as i do.

Yesterday, her husband, a die-hard believer that amdavadis (as ahmedabadis like to call themselves) can, in fact, acquire culture, was sitting with a friend (poet and writer Rudra Rana) to commisserate on lack of enthusiasm on the part of local newspapers for his new play. They complained that a certain newspaper covered all kinds of plays except theirs. Nafisaben promptly told her husband to give her the cell phone number of the editor of that newspaper, called him, complained that he wasn't covering the play and told him to definitely definitely send someone. She also asserted that he'd better check the review before printing it!

While we were all laughing at her audacity, she asserted that there's no embarassment in putting yourself out there if you believe in something. Would that i could always have someone like her on my side.

The other two are her husband and his friend. Rajoo sang for us some very beautiful ghazals, but then his friend started reciting his poetry.. who knew i could be brought to my knees with a poem recital in a language i can barely understand! he talked about the tensions between hindus and muslims, and generally about hatred, with a sadness that was all the more poignant with the matter-of-fact tone with which he recited it. You realize what true heroes these are - those who hate what has become of their homes, but instead of leaving, choose to stay and persist in the futile fight for change.

Just a couple others i'd like to mention in this gushing entry. Today we went to visit Chotra village in Rajula. Utthan was carrying out a PRA - preliminary rural appraisal or something like that. This is where we walk into a village and gather the villagers (or i guess in this case, the decision makers) and initiate whatever discussion you'd like to have. Watching the Utthan team handle this discussion was unbelievable - the women who work for the Rajula field office, all from Rajula, have enormous poise and public speaking ability. i can't even imagine walking into a village and telling people that some of their most treasured traditions are, well, wrong. and they need to be the ones insisting on change. the village, while richer than most villages (apparently it is, since i have no basis for comparison, this being the first village i've ever been in - ack! my first village visit!) still has a lot of the problems that you hear about. there were only 4-5 women among a group of almost 40 and all of them were covering their faces. It was only gradually that more women came and only when we broke into small groups, one being the women's group, that any woman actually spoke. and then, did they speak! the young women were terribly excited about being part of the women's group and taking on the elders. talking to them, we learned that there were no harijans in the group that had come, and anyhow, the harijans could not enter the village temple. also, the reason we know this village is that Utthan helped them out when they suffered a bad flood the year before. turns out all the harijan homes are right next to the river and thus, most vulnerable to a flood. images of black new-orleansians stranded on rooftops in the middle of a lake float around my head.

hopefully these types of dialogues will work. hopefully something does. what makes me so ashamed is that some of the same things we criticise in villagers are very much present in urban middle class india. i need to have the guts to talk so forthrightly and fearlessly about these problems, and force people to think about them and take a justifiable stand on them.

one more interesting note on villagers to end this with. yknow the stereotype of the gujarati farmer, all wizened with a white turban and long horizontal proud moustaches? well, its true.
19th Aug, 2006

There are times in your life when you feel like everything you know has been shattered. But then you realize that all that has been shattered was a layer of colored glass - a heavy, almost translucent layer - that covered what you really knew. What lies under that layer, the core of truth, is something you have purposely hidden, whose view you have purposely distorted; but there's something about it that won't go away. Its permanence, its essence is so real, that it cannot be dismissed or destroyed, just hidden. And it keeps nagging you.

Anyhow, the point is that today, i feel that i made another crack in the glass layer to get a quick glimpse. The crack was not shattering, it wasn't even deep enough to give a direct glimpse, but perhaps what i saw was a somewhat less distorted view.

I am in Ahmedabad, visiting Nafisaben. The last year and a half has been surreal, i feel like i have been in one long pursuit of these cracks. From leaving my job for a man, to reading a lot, to sleeping a lot, to refusing to look for another job. All in pursuit of one glimpse into this tender underbelly that is my true knowledge.

So anyhow, as part of my obligatory learning about Utthan, the organisation that is run by Nafisaben, I read their manual on conflict resolution. They had this example of an exercise that can be run. There are two people and one bag of rice. They both really want that bag of rice. What can be done? Well.. I didn't give it much thought, just went straight to the "solutions". There was one solution that the bigger and stronger wins - which i later realize is the realist view of the world. Then there's the solution that they split the bag in half, a more intricate subsolution of which is that they discuss their needs and the one with the greater need gets the proportionately larger share. As an economist, I thought about looking at their needs in terms of incentives, ie the one with the greater need should be willing to pay more of something else to get that bag of rice. But then, down the line, one of the last solutions caught my breath. What if in their deliberations, they look at each other and say, why the hell are we in this stupid experiment with just one bag? If we both want a bag of rice, why not address the root cause of the scarcity of rice in the first place?

My previous worldview had always been extremely pragmatic when facing these types of problems. Maybe its due to my background as an engineer and then a would-be economist, or maybe it was the reason i was drawn to those fields in the first place. If something is scarce, how best to utilize it so that it achieves its optimum utility. I thought in terms of efficiency, of speed, of getting more and more from less and less. For example, when writing a paper on how to best deal with water shortages in Peru, I came up with this elaborate scheme that gave people a basic minimum amount but then gave incentives to them to use less over that minimum.
When the question I should be asking is why is there a scarcity in the first place? What went wrong with the traditional schemes for managing water? Who is looking after the watershed? Is someone exploiting the water resource?

But thats just about water. What about so many other scenarios where conflict is caused by competition over a scarce resource, when if only the rival parties sat down to look at it, they would know that the real problem is not the other side but the entity that is keeping the resource scarce.

And these are things that we know. They are true and the truth lies inside. But we're so caught up in wanting bigger things, more things - the world where the engineer and the economist are our new gods - telling us what we want - that greed is good and to want more is perfectly natural and that we keep acquiring things till our utilities hit a pareto optimum.

Wanting more is not perfectly natural. Its selfish, unethical and the root of a lot of evil. dammit.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Today is the day i made up my mind to see India. Its appropriate that the blog was created today.

Why? you ask...

Well of course, there are the priors - my love for travel, my love for and curiosity about India, a sense of needing adventure, of needing to find myself, of needing to feel good about myself (while I've thoroughly enjoyed staying at home and doing nothing in Delhi, my ego is taking a bit of a beating for having no purpose).

Nishant set up this blog for me. And it was his egging me on that caused me to make up my mind to go. I needed this catalysing bang on the head - I'm a little too comfortable in my life of lovely dreary bliss.

So thats all for today. Still haven't figured out where i'll go in the endless hinterland - thats the beauty of this whole trip.