‘Wake up call’ day!

Over half of January has gone by. 2014 is shorter by half a month!

It’s been a ‘wake up call’ sort of day for me. And the thoughts in my head have been about looking ahead. I’m making a conscious effort to break from the past in the sense of not spending too much time ruminating over the last year, what it was like, what I learnt, etc. That stuff is important, but I tend to overdo it and get dangerously into the zone of procrastinating over stuff I need to get done NOW and in the future.

So, why so dramatic? What am I waking up about?

A few really important things.

1. Finances: I’ve opted for flexi work and consultancy the last many years and the kids have been a cushy excuse. I can’t look at joining work full time immediately, for various reasons. But I realized that my flexi work often took up as much time as full time work and paid me very little. So this year, I’m going to be a little more hard-nosed about money. That, of course, also goes for my spending, as I gear up to apply for PhD programs this year and hope to slide back into student life over the next few years!

2. Priorities: Being superwoman ain’t easy. It’s also stupid! I’m taking Rahul’s advice in 2014 and focusing on ME. Of course, it doesn’t mean everything else fades away, but there will be times I will make choices that appear completely out of character. All those of you out there who think I already am a self-centered *****, get ready for more of that! No apologies.

3. Productivity: A big part of my self-improvement drive this year hinges on this. Managing my time better and also meeting targets set for myself will be critical for me to achieve my goals. To begin with, I’m betting on being more self-aware of my schedules and less scatter-brained as I’m juggling many things as usual. Accountability to myself is also something I will be very careful about. I’m one of the most self-delusional beings on the planet!

4. Focus: This is the toughest one and should have been the first, but I’m under-confident. It’s in my nature to segue here and there and I love the experiences that emerge from those distracted journeys. But I’ll have to change some of that this year.

So you can see. 2014 begins on a very different note. My list looks a lot more like the ones in self-improvement books. Already, it’s not sounding like me, but someone else. And I’m intrigued, amused, impressed, motivated and also a little bit blah about it already! Hmmm…

Admiration: The tough road an artist must walk- Sep 16, 2012

I admire art and I admire artists more. Art demands an honesty and level of consciousness that is exhausting while requiring at the same the exact opposite, spontaneity. Anyone who can pull all of that off together while exhibiting magnificent technique and composition and content is a magician of sorts.
I try and bring that sort of almost brutal honesty to my writing, but I do find myself playing to the gallery once in a while or simply exploring tangents that take my fancy without real conviction. Those are also important aspects of the journey of an artist. And yes, I do consider myself a part artist or an aspirant at least.
But at what point does an artist know that she has arrived at a point when she can share her work with the world at large? When does she throw herself bare and invite reactions? Some artists I know say that they knew when they were ready. They just felt it. Were more confident and had more clarity. Others say there was no defining moment. They simply toiled away at it till someone pushed them to share their work. They took tentative steps forward into the public realm and only when appreciation came in did they realise they were on to something.
I guess in art, like in everything else, how you perform is as much a matter of talent as that of the personality of the artist. In this too, there are contrasts. Reticent and quiet people can be aggressive in self promotion and social, gregarious artists can be self deprecating and low on confidence. The training of an artist, therefore, needs to be about art and attitude in equal parts. Which is true for a lot of other things as well I guess.
It’s hard for artists though, because they rely on self discipline and mentoring to learn and progress. It isn’t usually an institutionalised process of learning and progression; and certainly not time bound. Finding the right mentors and having a sense of purpose and balance become critical ingredients to the artists journey.
But balance can often take away from the passion needed to bring out your art, deter you from taking a stand and inhibit expression perhaps. It’s an old joke, that artists are slightly unbalanced, eccentric, crazy. Indeed they must be, for they hold up a mirror to society and human nature, both of which are twisted and complex, and perhaps even unfair.

Mixed classrooms are an opportunity to teach our children the values of inclusivity and tolerance- Sep 4, 2012

The social divide is, in my perception, the single largest obstacle between India and progress. The apalling manifestations of this divide strike me everyday. The insecurity of the privileged classes and the growing frustrations of the have-nots can explain many of the negatives we experience around us- all manner of crime, anger, safety of women, and so on. And what’s really scary is that our response is only to build more walls, shrink further into our cocoon. We imagine we are spreading our legs in plush comfort, but actually we are squeezing into a very small mental and cultural space. Already, life has lost much of the diversity and stimulus I remember from my childhood. Our social response to dealing with the social divide by sanitizing our surroundings, making everything in our lives as ordered and predictable and controlled as possible, will only mean more boredom, more and more of ‘sameness’…shudder!

Today’s observations are in the context of education and the outright rejection of the elite to the possibility of mixed classrooms as recommended by the┬áRight to Education Act. A Hindustan Times-C Fore Survey, carried by the HT today, exposes the paranoia of urban middle class parents with school going children. 72% believed the quality of education would decline, but that doesn’t bother me so much. What really struck me were the responses to a question that asked parents if having classmates from a lower economic background would help your child become a less prejudiced person. 22% said yes, an astonishing 55% said no and a substantial 23% were non-committal. Now that tells me a lot and I’m not smiling! Being less prejudiced is not something we even consider a desirable attribute any more. It seems to me that we parents want our kids to be smart, intelligent, successful, have myriad skills that will help them land plum jobs in this competitive world. But we’re probably not too concerned about whether our child will grow up to be a sensitive, socially responsible individual. Nobody cares!

We’ve pushed the capitalistic thought so far into the social consciousness of this nation that social equity isn’t something most of us even consider a desirable. Those of us who are vocal about social equity are considered a bit strange, almost like we are disconnected with reality. But the reality is that masses in this nation face huge barriers to progress that they desperately need and crave for. It’s not just us: everyone aspires for upward mobility, even though that might mean different things for different people. And it’s not right for us to begrudge anyone that right.

We need to code an inclusive approach into our children. We need to get out of the ‘step over someone to get ahead’ mentality and believe that we can all progress together as partners and collaborators. Yes, resources are scarce but there are also many opportunities if we have the right attitude.

Mixed classrooms are a great opportunity to build an inclusive and tolerant mindset in our children. My daughter studies in a mixed classroom as Shikshantar has implemented the RTE this year. The kids seem scarcely aware of the differences and the bonding seems great. Of course, Shikshantar uses Hindi and English both as mediums for pre-primary education, so language in itself is not a barrier. But what I’m trying to say is that children aren’t judgemental at all, unless we teach them to be. And they stand to learn a lot from diversity.

I was heartened to read in the same HT spread on RTE that educationists are a lot more positive about mixed classrooms and despite obstacles, are admitting to this being a positive step forward. Its time we changed our mindsets to allow a new generation increased access to quality education. It could mean a bright new future for our nation, increased security and less strife for the world that our children will inhabit in their lifetime.

Hating the “other” is a false cocoon: Let’s fight intolerance- Aug 8, 2012

It’s driven me to despair, these killings in Wisconsin. Of course, the defenses kick in and the mind begins to write it off, but I despair. I despair at how intolerant we are becoming in a world that is increasingly diverse, multicultural, where social chaos is increasing at a rapid rate…And what do we do? We crawl right back into the false safety of the cocoons of our mind. We construct alternate realities where America is for whites, Assam is for the Bodos and Ranchi is for girls who, well, do not wear jeans!

It’s not just about identity. It’s about the false comfort of hating the “other” because we cannot understand the chaos. Amardeep Singh puts it beautifully in his piece for NY Times titled Being Sikh in America. “Would it be any less tragic if the victims in Wisconsin had been Muslims gathering for Friday prayers?,” he asks. He wonders about “how awfully precarious the American dream can be” in the context of thousands of immigrant families who settled in the US admiring of the equal opportunity and economic prospects.

It’s the same everywhere. The dream of prosperity and peace is becoming increasingly precarious and among the many factors sabotaging it, intolerance seems to be the hardest one to fight.

Amardeep claims that we are being naive to expect intolerance and hatred to be countered by education and awareness. That, for me, is truly heartbreaking. I, like many liberals and idealists, hold on tightly to the idea that meaningful debate, discussion, education and the rest of that wonderful stuff will change the world. That is my own false cocoon. I know that.

So where do we go from here? How do we change the game from fighting the “other” to fighting the hatred of the “other”? How do we offer non-violent solutions to frustrated people, which we all are in some measure? I have started by looking into myself and identifying what the “others” are for me and systematically trying to rationalize and hopefully reduce my own prejudices.

We need to address this, somehow. And urgently. For this I know. It’s hatred and intolerance and not climate change that will end the story of the human race!

 

Why have I given up on the post office? Today’s fun outing! July 19, 2012

I visited the post office today. I must have entered one after years and years. I used to get sent for errands to the post office and the bank during my teenage years in Lucknow. We lived in a campus out of the city and there were a finite number of families there. Strolls in the heat to converse with the dull inhabitants of these institutions was not my idea of how to spend a summer holiday, but you just did what your parents asked you to back then!

So its ironic that when we were married, we chose to put the modest bounty we had collected in cheques from friends, relatives and well wishers into a post office investment scheme! Well, we pretty much locked the money away there and forgot about it. Recently, we’ve been trying to figure out how much is in there and how we could retrieve it etc.

Anyway, I climb up a flight of stairs of a private residence to get to the Kailash Colony post office. It used to be elsewhere before, in a dark and terrible dusty property and this was quite an improvement. The employees were really sweet to me, despite my total clue-lessness! As usual, some of the work got done, and more paperwork is needed to complete it, but it was all very good-natured.

What struck me there was the pace of things. The post office, despite its new branding as India Post, is frozen in a previous time. There seems to be no hurry at all. Everyone knows what to do, how to do it, there is very little noise and employees do not look hassled. They actually smile at you!

Observation no.2. Senior citizens love the post office. I saw three seniors come in, get their work done and leave satisfied. They confidently marched up to the man who owned the only desk in the place, presumably the manager there. They sat in a chair, filled the required forms, they got great service, they even made polite conversation, and then they left.

Despite the really thin paper with poor quality print that you see on withdrawal and deposit forms, passbooks etc (now we’ve got used to private banking, with its jazzy paraphernalia!), things worked around here. I compared my experience with others, and both my mother and my mother in law told me the local post office near our home was equally relaxed, with pleasant staff.

So, why have I given up on the post office? Because I don’t write to anyone in physical form any more, because I think the courier is a superior option even when there is no real reason to spend more on a communication; because I have lost faith in any service the government provides and assume the private sector is more efficient. That isn’t true in this context. I have chased enough misplaced couriers in my life to know that!

I resolved to see the positives in everything on this blog recently. The post office experience showed me a positive side to India, and I am proud and humbled as well.

Udai’s class recently did an exercise in which they wrote a letter to someone, figured out the address to send it to, acquired postage stamps etc and now those letters are on their way! I thought it a quaint activity at that time, but am glad they did it. It’s unfair to give up on systems that actually work!

The killer instinct: Some have it, I don’t- July 8, 2012

Watching sports and great sports-persons always amazes. Tonight, as we watched the Great Fed and Murray battle it out, amid bouts of rain at Wimbledon, we talk about sports as a talent, as an attitude. Yes, certain people are immensely talented at sports. I have known those with great accuracy, great body coordination, great stamina, great focus, great instinct, great reflexes and all sorts of combinations of the above.

The two men in my life I have known best- my dad and my husband have had, in addition to a smattering of the above talents, had that other ability that, in my opinion, really makes or breaks a sports-person. The killer instinct, the ability to be so keenly competitive that you fight for every single point as if is a matter of life and death. Interestingly, these are two gentle and civil people. The killer instinct manifests itself through intense strategy, rarely via aggression. The strategy disarms opponents, but players who can match their intelligence throw them off their feet and offer real challenge. Rahul appreciates the same ability in an opponent, I’ve seen the pleasure he gets out of playing when evenly matched and how easily he tires of opponents who are as skilled but less cerebral in how they play their sport.

Now me, I’ve never been much of a sporting person. Even at things other than sports, I get too complacent too soon and give up easily when challenged beyond my comfort zone. I wish dearly I had more of a fight in me. Back at school, we had a classmate called Shariq who was our house captain. He pushed me to try new things at sport. I did reasonably well at stuff like shot put and discuss, but what he discovered in me was a sort-of talent for long distance walking! The first time I competed, he ran many laps with me, ensuring I didn’t slow down or give up. So I’m hoping (not in sports, but in life) maybe I’m one of those slow and steady sort of winners. I’m hoping the tenacity and long-term stamina that I think I have can make up for the lack of the killer instinct! Someday…

Shooting in the dark: Affordable housing for Indian cities- May 28, 2012

I’m in Bangalore again, driving through the city to get from the airport to Electronic City, where we will spend two days brainstorming our preliminary research on setting up ratings for affordable housing. Always known for its simplicity and charm, Bangalore screams out its penchant for opulence today. Billboards advertise homes for Rs 5 crore and jewellery advertisements are numerous as well. Affordable housing is going to be difficult to talk about in this setting.
Why blame Bangalore though? Indian metros are seeing a distinct trend of imbalanced development. Two clear victims in this have been the poor and the environment. It is impossible for our cities to survive this way and we are at the brink of two types of disasters- social and environmental.
Gated communities are offering a refuge to the privileged and rearing a generation of people who will have words like equity, balance, multicultural and cohesion in their dictionaries without really grasping their meaning. Two worlds that do not understand each other are springing up before us. Intolerance is fuelling the flames and we are experiencing a severe social schism that urgently needs correction. How do we build trust and eradicate feelings of suspicion?
In this scenario, the concept of developers building homes for the poor strikes me as unsustainable. The gulf is wide. This will only be possible if the government steps in to make the investment profitable to developers. And if organisations and mechanisms can bridge the gap between developer and the low income customer. Institutionalising such a process seems an onerous task. Add to that the fact that access to finance is a key ingredient that also needs to be tackled in an institutional manner. Mammoth changes in policy and attitude are needed.
Working on this rating with Ashoka and other partnering organisations has been revealing. But I am unsure if I am any more optimistic than when we begun. At this point , I feel we are still shooting arrows into the dark and the answers lie right before our eyes, but we are unable to see them!

What I learnt from conversations with the youth in urban slums: They crave opportunity and deserve support- April 9, 2012

A few of us friends met up for lunch yesterday. Randomly, someone observed that one can experience kindness from the most obscure sources, describing an incident when an auto driver was sympathetic and understanding, willing to forego his payment when she misplaced her wallet (he needed to wait a while and eventually got paid). Another friend remarked that kindness and understanding often came most spontaneously from those who themselves have so little to lose.

In my work with slum dwellers in the past year or so, I have often noticed the warmth with which we (who go in to research and sometimes help them) are treated, despite the fact that it is hard for them to trust people who come with promises to help, having experienced disappointments before. I am specially touched by my interactions with children and young people. These kids are usually bright, cheerful and enthusiastic, despite the harsh conditions of their life. In the urban slums I am referring to (specifically in Sundernagari in East Delhi and in the slums in Gurgaon), food may not be available to kids in plenty, but they show no signs of serious malnutrition.

Education is another story, however. In the slums of Delhi, kids do attend government school, but the quality of education is nothing to write home about and young people feel complexed and frustrated as they reach their teens, many dropping out in secondary school to seek domestic work and other forms of informal employment. In Gurgaon, slum children do not go to school at all and they sort of resent the fact that their parents make no effort at all!

When asked why they drop out, slum kids express a lack of confidence in being able to find employment. They are convinced that they will find it difficult to succeed in a world that gives opportunity only to those who speak English. It always seems strange they think like this, because I can think of a zillion types of jobs that require intelligence and hard work, not super fabulous communication skills and certainly not in English! I wonder if this is a BPO/KPO driven hype where poor urban youth sees thousands working in such set ups and see that as the modern form of white-collared mass employment? But seriously, it is a challenge for these young people to reconcile their very basic levels of education with available opportunities; and then put these in context of their aspirations, which in a world influenced by media and mobile technology, have changed considerably as well! In this scenario, I was pleased to read some NGOs making an effort to help slum youth find jobs. A lot more such initiatives would be needed, with counseling efforts to help these young people fit into modern working environments, develop a basic understanding of work ethics, rights and responsibilities, avenues for growth, etc.

Gurgaon rape: 5 points for a petition to demand facts and improve policing in the city- March 15, 2012

As the momentum built up through the day among Gurgaon’s citizens to protest against police apathy towards the recent rape and of course, many other rapes, molestations and other crimes against women in the city, I began to wonder about what a petition to the government would look like if I were to write it.

Well, with regards to safety, my first concern would be to examine the quality of policing and the condition of police reforms in the country, especially Haryana. After all, policing is one of the central functions of governance, public health and safety being the overall objective of good governance.

Here are some of the points I would put in.

1. Police-population ratio: As per data from the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2010, there are only 130 policemen in India per 100,000 people, way below the stipulated UN norm of 220. Fewer policemen are recruited in most states than the sanctioned number of posts. This also means most policemen never get a day off and this hugely impacts their performance and motivation. A petition to the Haryana government would need to ask (or find out beforehand) what the figures are for Gurgaon and demand a better ratio for an upcoming urban area that is a lucrative source of revenue for the state government.

Poor quality of policing is also closely linked to the mode of recruitment. Widespread corruption and the usual practice of ‘buying’ jobs means there is no control on the quality of recruits.Which brings me to reforms, the main point on the agenda.

2. Adoption of police reforms as dictated by SC in 2006: Policing in India was governed by archaic laws made in 1861, until in 2006, the SC laid down seven directives for states to adopt. These included functional autonomy for police (via tenure security, streamlined appointment and transfer processes, a buffer body to delink police from government), more accountability (organizational and individual).

The petition should ask the Haryana government whether any of these reforms have been implemented and urge them to do so. Less political interference would directly result in better policing as rapists and perpetrators of other crimes with political patronage would not get away as easily. Recruitment process should also be addressed.

3. Training programs and general capacity building: Does the Haryana government regularly train its police force? A research exercise conducted by MIT and IIM in Rajasthan in 2008 shows that public perception about police force as well as actual performance can improve with small interventions like training in hard and soft skills, giving policemen a day off, etc. Building motivation, sensitizing police to social conditions is especially important in Gurgaon, which is urbanizing rapidly, creating stress between existing and new populations. The petition must demand information on existing training and suggest capacity building programs.

4. Creation of a mechanism to engage with community: Citizen groups must demand a cell within the police that will engage with citizens and seek to understand issues, address problem and foster an environment that is capable of evolving creative solutions for the long-term issues threatening the city’s socio-economic fabric. This cell must communicate outwards to offer correct information to the public. Citizens can help provide professional PR and communications support so the police don’t keep goofing up on what they have to say!

5. Protection of victim’s identity: ‘No loose talk by police personnel’ must be included the petition. It is important to protect victims if we are to get more rape cases reported, investigated and hopefully more rapists convicted. The petition must urge the government to make this a legally binding order. Citizen groups also need to take it upon themselves to specifically protest if this is violated. Media should take voluntary responsibility to refrain from publishing identifying details.

I guess I could go on, with more research. But I will stop at this for tonight.

My point is that, as citizens, our approach should be well-researched and we should be willing to get involved in this through till the end. Perhaps it is the job of a focused citizen task force to pursue this, but it needs to be done in a sensitive and sustained manner. It’s our city and we need to rally together to ensure these questions get answered and reforms addressed and implemented. Otherwise, it is our lives at stake!

 

Gurgaon rape: To bring change, we need sustained effort beyond immediate anger and protests- March 14, 2012

I try and not rant against the system on this blog, but when you read about rape everyday and then it happens in your backyard, it’s just too much provocation! I took a taxi back from the airport close to midnight yesterday and I was glad for the paternal polite sardarji who was my cabbie, while still wondering about whether appearances can be deceptive. I am not a paranoid person, but when brutal incidents happen everyday, it twists your mind, doesn’t it?

And then, to top it all, the police response is to stop women from working in pubs after eight in the evening. Sure, they caught some of the rapists, but I’m not willing to forgive an attitude that resorts to curtailing the freedom of citizens rather than taking measures to increase the safety of our city.

My first reaction, of course, is how easy it is for society (the authorities are reflecting a larger social attitude) to ask women to behave ‘within limits’. Just like recent incidents in which airline staff asked people with disabilities to deplane, the attitude reeks of a mindset in which women are considered weak, disadvantaged and mostly a problem.

Why can’t we do something to promote (among men and potential rapists and everyone) understanding and tolerance, perhaps by creating common platforms to bring people from diverse backgrounds together? Culture and sports, community building activities like planting trees, cleanliness drives…I don’t know. There must be something we can do to stop the ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking. Urban vs rural, rich vs poor, modern vs traditional, boys vs girls……as a society, we seem to be losing our balance and lashing out against something. And I am, perhaps naively, convinced that rape, brawls and bad driving are symptoms of a problem, while also being problems in themselves and therefore we need to take a larger view and address the issue at many levels.

Of course, there is a disregard for the law and authority, which needs to be addressed by harsher punishments and better policing. But I cannot believe a rapist thinks he is right or isn’t shit scared when the police actually catch him. Then what makes him do it? What makes him not stop? Its insensitivity, the prioritization of his pleasure over anything else, the importance of ‘I’ and our own and the absence of an inclusive sense of community. If I were to actually know a girl who worked in a bar and see her as a normal person trying to earn a living, would I be less likely to rape her? (For that matter, I don’t happen to know a rapist, so its hard to profile one!)

I don’t know how to think all this through. But I do know that citizens have a right to expect governments to act. The action, however, must be long-term and two-pronged and a diverse range of citizen groups must be involved. Protests should convert to some sort of sustained communication, building of trust and spreading the message that crime against anyone is a crime against yourself, your community, your family, your women……..yourself…..