Monday, 12 October 2015

Courage & Compassion

In conversation with the Believer a few weeks ago, he said to me, "Whenever something bad happens, everybody keeps saying 'God is watching'. There's this assumption that God will 'fix' everything. What if I am meant to be God's warrior? Maybe I'm the one meant to avenge all the bad shit in this world."

His anger wasn’t misplaced. He’d just finished working on a horrific, disturbing story, and this inclination to begin believing that violence might be the best way to ‘punish’ violence seemed to be his only source of salvation. What was disturbing was a gentle, happy-go-lucky, God-loving soul gnashing his teeth in rage and frustration. Destroy the demons.

A few days later, I found myself standing on the other side of a glass door, squinting at a 150 strong crowd of social activists crammed into a conference room. Sickening curls of claustrophobia. So many people. Such a small space. Deep breath, step inside. Walk past the crowd. Slowly, DON’T run. Silly grin stuck in place. Cheeks hurt. Ears burn. ‘Namaste.’ ‘Johar!’ ‘Kaise ho?’ Eyes burn holes in my shirt. Smile. I step into a corner, feeling rather like a rat. Smile. Scanning the crowd, I begin to recognize faces, smiles. Manju. Mohan. Nirmala didi. Sajad. Reena. Deena. Heart rate slows. I recognize people from videos, silently checking names off my ‘final CC list’ excel sheet. Kashmir. Bangalore. Sundargarh. Uttarakhand. Latehar. Raigarh. I was looking at what is possibly India’s largest community media network. Over 170 ‘community correspondents’ representing some of India’s most marginalized communities.  In the group, I can identify various social movements and occupations - farmers, daily wagers, manual labourers, theatre artistes, social workers, tribal, dalit, Resident of Backward Area, Pahadi, Primitive Tribal Group, religious minorities, sexual minorities, think of the combinations, they were all here. Districts and addresses, jan andolans and networking partnerships start spinning circles in my mind, when Stalin steps onto the podium. Sudden silence. In a single, near coordinated move, more than a hundred cameras rise to capture the moment.

Your perception of me is a reflection of you

The UnQuiet One recently introduced me to ‘Rick & Morty’, a bizarre cartoon show where grandpa Rick, drags his grandson Morty into parallel dimensions in pursuits of things of supreme irrelevance. In one episode, the family dog, Snuffles’ intelligence is enhanced. He realizes the cruelty of human beings and creates an intelligent dog army to take over the human world. Morty always loved Snowball, and was his friend, and so was spared from being caged, leashed and punished for peeing on the carpet. Snowball slowly spirals out of control, Morty’s illness engineered by Rick snaps Snowball back to reality with the epiphany, ‘We are not them!’ He uses Rick’s dimension diving galactic door to transport the intelligent dogs to a kinder, more compassionate one, where pet insurance is mandatory. (I kinda wanted Snuffles to take me with them.)

Since dimension diving isn’t really possible, I guess not being them is our only option. It takes a special kinda courage to channelize anger and frustration to recognize and acknowledge a more compassionate way out of every situation. One of the sharpest lessons I’ve learnt while working with this network of correspondents has been to be who I want the person across me to be. If I expected a professional working relationship strengthened with mutual love and respect, I’ve had to open my soul and reveal my true self to the person sitting across me. I’ve had to be willing to hear their strong, unfaltering voices narrating death, violence, starvation, torture. I died a tiny death, skipped a small breath, every time they enumerated children who disappear on a daily basis. They tell us of those who are beaten, raped, abused, on any goddamned accusation. Their eyes burned, steadfast gaze, holding eye contact as they spoke of people being cheated, robbed, bombed and burnt, because they are who they are. And when they told me of the price on a local guerilla’s head, (25 lakh INR, no less), I fumble with frustration, because I know the region this guerilla operates out of hasn’t had access to clean drinking water in three decades. Yes, three decades. Caught between the guerillas and the benevolent state, this community is confused – if their government can afford 25 lakh INR, why is there no clean water yet? I would imagine the community would have taken up arms, or done something ridiculous, desperate, radical. With the help of their local correspondent, they documented their struggle for water. They built roads, documented organic farming. They proved, that they are not them.

My reaction to you is an awareness of me

Having spent hours lying around in the grass marveling at clouds racing across the sky, or reveling in the explosions of colour below my bare feet, the mysteries of the human mind no longer bemuse me. I no longer question, or seek to understand the billions of bizarre things human beings indulge in. The origin of this universe has to be one of the greatest unsolved mysteries ever, and humankind is nothing but a tiny, irrelevant speck on this planet. And just as ‘the moon is a souvenir of the violent collisions of a thousand stars[1]’, we too, are souvenirs of multiple hurts, agonies, wounds and suffering we encounter. In our daily dilemmas, many of us forget our origins. We are made of star stuff. Exploding stars release the oxygen we breathe, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood …it is upto us to channelize the stardust of our souls in the correct way, with courage and compassion.

“True resistance begins with people confronting pain... 
and wanting to do something to change it.[2]

Standing with the Community Correspondents, in the midst of all the coordinated chaos, I was inspired. Again. I was standing amongst individuals who have accepted the challenge of changing this world. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with activists who’ve shut down firing ranges, stopped child marriages, risked their own lives to film mob violence, acid attacks, police brutality, rampant corruption and caste based violence. These activists have set aside personal lives & challenges to change 1.5 million lives, and amongst them, have created more than 500 stories of change in their communities, taking a stand and changing things right where they are.

I found myself standing right beside the man who, when he had first met me years ago, truly believed that women had a designated place in society – the kitchen. We’d forged a deep friendship over two weeks of incessant arguing about gender and society. Seeing me beside him, he gently twined his fingers with mine, knowing I am afraid of large crowds. He whispered he’s glad to see me. I smile; squeeze his fingers gently. I feel empowered. I am again able to believe in the possibility of peace. I think of the wild creepers of the Goan monsoon, always stretching, straining for sunlight.

So, my little Sungta, violence isn't the answer. You are never alone in your anger. What is important is how you assert it. Never be afraid. Rise up. Resist. Tell the truth. Fight for freedom. Always stand courageous, always be compassionate.

[1] Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

For a Free and Fair World

"May I be protector for those without one,

A guide for all travellers on the way;"

~ Shantideva, in A Guide to the Bodhisattva's way of Life.

The gorgeous Goan monsoon is washing my windows squeaky clean, and as I'm lying around in bed, I’m suddenly thinking of Sealdah railway station. I was there just last month, a sweaty, stinky blob of flesh melting in the heat and humidity. We were running to catch a train to North Bengal, pushing through a roiling mass of people, dodging handcarts, sidestepping squalor when three ragged, dirty, little boys ran past us, pushing each other around, laughing, eyes a-sparkle, running barefoot across the platform... all I could think of at that time was him.

I saw a world & it was mean,
and hope was nowhere to be seen…

Impatiently pushing aside tangled, matted hair, one of the little boys lithely swung himself onto the train pulling into platform number 1. The other two ran alongside, deftly catching plastic bottles he threw out at them, swiftly stuffing them into a sack, ending with a running jump onto the tracks beyond. They’re irreverent, incorrigible, heads thrown back in laughter, and I’m still stuck somewhere on one those long, lonesome nights spent with him, sitting in near-silence by Chapora River. It’s like we’re strangers, mostly quiet, sometimes speaking of stargazing in Mumbai.

I know I’m indulging in a sickening bout of sentimentality here, but seems like being at Sealdah station was rougher on me than I choose to remember. Obviously it’s making my mind into a simpering silly slug flopping around in slush erstwhile known as brain. Each night by the river was to be a different story. He'd tell me why he ran away from home. When. How. We’d wondered through various theories together, whether his family ever looked for him, missed him even. His references to ‘home’ leave me lost. For him, ‘home’ sometimes means the jhula at Juhu Chowpatty. He'd swing rich lil Bombay brats by hand on that jhula. He’d often slept under the stars, he’d said, gazing up at them even now, more than a decade later, as he told me of those nights. He wrapped his arms around his bony knees, rocking himself in rhythm to the river slapping gently against shore, staring at the stars, anxious, always aloof, always alone…

I used to go to Chapora with him because it was quiet spot we could sit without a care. Poor carefree Chapora, made maudlin by all these stories. He’s often talked  about being hungry & homeless, alone & afraid in a strange, scary city. Other friends have described to me warped relationships wrapped in secrecy & strange compulsions, subtle notes of subdued pain, old scars of struggle...

My whole damned trip into West Bengal last month had felt like a strange sorta ‘ghar wapsi’ for me, a return to my motherland after almost a decade. Decades have gone by, that India has been ‘independent’. Yet West Bengal got left behind in some sepia-toned time warp, where people are still impoverished and deprived. Denied a basic quality of life, of choice, of the right to raise their voice, people usually resign themselves to substandard lifestyles, depending on government doles to sustain themselves.

West Bengal boasts of being the sixth largest economy in the country, and the state’s power infrastructure and roads and railways network is top notch as compared to the rest of the country. Despite having literacy rates higher than the national average, over 30% of the youth in Bengal remained unemployed in 2012-2013. 47 million unemployed young people. This was the same year the state recorded the highest rates of violence against women in the country. Around the same time, there were apparently no farmers committing suicide. Around that time, apparently, no custodial rapes in West Bengal, according the National Crime Records Bureau. Same time when there were no custodial rapes in Chhattisgarh either. Hahaha. Someone forgot Soni Sori. Savage destruction of fragile ecologies of the Sundarbans and the Northern Himalaya, rampant pollution caused by illegal stone quarrying, pathetic living conditions, arsenic poisoned ground water, droughts and floods, caste based discrimination and violence, cross border trafficking and smuggling, it seemed like everything immoral and illegal, it's all happening in Bengal! Most of the government records I’ve trawled twice over had little to offer. The websites were mostly defunct or full of dead links. The newspapers rarely asked these questions. They were busy with the political violence ripping apart the state.  

All the missing stories were right there, with the legal groups, the health workers, the forest villagers, the tea workers, the non-profits, the self help groups and women’s collectives. We heard about the deplorable state of education, appalling stories of the sheer lack of employment opportunities available, the desperate search for a means of survival, and the subsequent trafficking and the migration that is rampant across the state. So many stories. No one to listen.

Hearing these sickening stories almost always hurt, sometimes, rarely, they inspire imagination. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to simply walk away when someone starts speaking, sharing their strange stories. I’m usually compelled to remain. Perhaps it's politeness. Maybe it's curiosity. And a certain sordid fascination for speaking to strangers for sure. Sometimes these stories make me want to wage war. Channelize my dormant Chandi Maata and wage a war of non-violence[1]. And then I reluctantly remember we must accept our fate. ‘Kismet’, as Saloni says. Dratted destiny. If I must listen, I must do so in renunciation[2].
For a free & fair world.

And so, still lolling in bed, still thinking of Sealdah station, still thinking of him, I make up my the many moods of monsoon take over, I must remember not to indulge in too many bouts of sentimental shit.

I must always remember, nothing I do can fix the world he grew up in.

I can, however, always fight for a free and fair world. I can fight to fix the world everyone will live in hereafter.

[1] "Nonviolence is not only a state of being, but a course of action meant to be waged rather than merely preached."

[2] “Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away.”~Shunryu Suzuki