Author Archives: ramblinginthecity
No matter how confident you are about your parenting skills, the impending teens are just sheer trouble. And it’s not about the kids. They’re doing what they do. Procrastinating, wasting time, shuffling along, despondent. Or on overdrive, wanting to overachieve, pushing you over the edge. But what do you do?
Try to be there for them, is the advice I get. But what does that mean? Does that mean be a silent supporter, opining only when asked, standing around in case you need to have their back when they are in trouble? Or does that mean being the dragon mum, actively helping them work through issues, holding them to deadlines, negotiating time schedules? Neither of the two is a comfortable position. Are you doing too little, or too much? And then there is the issue of losing your cool. For when you get there, the battle is surely lost.
A wise friend told me to not overthink it. She said I have to trust that the kids will eventually be more like the parents in terms of their values and mental make-up. While that is comforting, do I not get the chance to alert them of my own shortcomings? Can I tell them what they should not be doing, tell them about the errors I made?
I’ve been thinking (no I cannot not do the overthink!) about this for a few weeks now and I think each one of us has a teen inside us. At the core, I still feel the urge to defend myself even when I know I’m not right. I still gravitate towards those who agree with me, while dismissing folks with a contrary opinion. I still think people who judge me are uncool. I still struggle with setting goals from time to time. Have issues with planning my time and even occasional ego hassles with co-workers and friends. Yes, some bit of me is still a teen, part-time sulker, part-time enthu cutlet!
And so, I will listen to the wise ones and try and lead by example. Focus on my goals and stay calm. Leave the door open. And hope my sanity does not walk out through it!
Amma + Amma = Amamma
It’s a month today since her passing. I know she’s gone, but I still haven’t fully registered her absence. It struck me this past weekend, as mum and me sorted out her sarees, and her scent wafted around the room, that it isn’t possible to really comprehend the death of a loved one. We try, we pretend to be all pragmatic and grown up about it. We talk, we share memories, we laugh. And then, one day, in an unexpected moment, we find our cheeks wet and our hearts heavy. We find we cannot breathe very well for a few moments. Then things appear in focus again. And life goes on.
At least that’s how it has been with me this past month. The thing is, Amamma and me have always been very close. She was a second mother to me through my early childhood when I spent two years with my grandparents in Delhi while my parents were abroad. I followed her around like a puppy dog in my growing years when they lived in Bangalore, loving the scents and flavours of her divine cooking, inhaling the aromas of freshly ground coffee and the freshly picked jasmines from her garden. She had a beautiful voice and my best memories are of Amamma singing her morning prayers even as she went about doing her chores. A busybee if there was one! She taught me how to do a mean kollam and everyday of the summer vacations that I spent with them, she encouraged me and guided me in making better designs.
She was the one who pampered me during my 10th and 12th grade Board Exams, rustling of my favourite eats and handing me coffee in a flask before turning in at night, knowing I could be up studying. Even in college, when she lived alone in Chennai, I remember visiting her from college in Delhi to spend time with her. She was a good sport, accompanying me to Kancheepuram to study traditional homes for my B.Arch dissertation way back in ’98. In recent years, she has been in Gurgaon living in the adjacent building with my mum. Though the roles were reversed and it was me checking in on her every now and then, we shared an easy bond with much laughing and cuddling involved.
My relationship with Amamma was different in a very marked way from nearly all other relationships in my life. We never shared an intellectual relationship, even in part. Instead, our bond had a deep aesthetic and emotional foundation. I have known for a long time, and this has only been reinforced by the sort of memories that have surfaced recently, that I derived my love for the beautiful things in life largely from her. She shaped my aesthetic tastes in a very profound manner. In my deep comfort with music, in my enjoyment of religious rituals despite my agnostic position on religious belief, and most markedly in how I choose to dress. Her grace and beauty, inside and out, left an impression on me right from my early years. My love for dressing up, for beautiful clothes and traditional jewellery is entirely a result of her grooming and her generosity.
I see now how I’ve styled myself after her time and again, and this was brought home to me during the #100sareepact I was part of in 2015. Being the only grandchild with so much access to her, I’ve benefited from numerous handouts from her cupboard through my life-bits and pieces of jewellery, scarves, perfumes, and of course, sarees…..Each piece came with a story, a nugget of wisdom, a bit of gossip from her past. Through the years, I have constructed a veritable tapestry of her life experiences, from her childhood to her life as a wife and mother. Even those stories, unraveling from her sarees and jewelry, have been an invaluable education.
When I woke up this morning, I wanted to make today special. I wanted to clear the haze of grief and celebrate the zest and spirit that she had always had for life. I wore her saree, one of those many that have made the journey from her cupboard to mine over the years. I felt her warmth, I smiled her smile, I felt beautiful.
Don’t ask my why this is my first visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the literary event that seems to have caught the fancy of the public owing to its curious mix of the eclectic and popular. To be honest, it hasn’t been high on my radar but this year work took me to the Pink City during Litfest week and the coincidence was too much to ignore.
I managed to squeeze in a few sessions, all of them invigorating. Whether it was Pavan Varma quizzing Naqvi on his reading of history or Manu Joseph making tongue-in-cheek remarks about the difficulties writers face putting themselves in the opposite gender’s shoes, the content was rich and engaging. Every single venue was full. The ones with Bollywood personalities were distinctly overflowing. But sessions on Sanskrit writing and the literature of anger as expressed by Dalit and tribal writers were full as well. I wondered why.
One way of looking at it is that there are simply too many people at JLF and they have to go somewhere and do something! And while this is true, I suspect there’s a lot more going on here beyond the thrill of attending a mela.
I identified a few distinct types of visitors- the artistic and creative community, the must-be-seen-here types, the book lovers, the firangs, the senior citizens and a large number of school and college students. After a point, I opted out of the sessions and just sat and watched the crowd, overheard the conversations and chatted with folks. I met college kids from Jaipur who had chosen sessions because they were about subjects that were new to them. A friend who attends every year comes here to meet authors and expand his book collection. One young couple told me that it is exciting to be at an event like this where you get a chance to rub shoulders (literally) with everyone from popular Bollywood personalities to your favorite author. For some students I met here, being at JLF was like traveling the world, gaining a new set of experiences. Neither can I complain about passive audiences; I found questions from the floor were very sharp across age groups in the sessions I attended.
Clearly, JLF means different things to different people. All things said, it is certainly a step forward in taking literature, art and academic writing out of its elitist bastion (and may I say, pushing those in the bastion to learn a thing or two from the real world outside!). This is a new world where young people explore many ways to engage with new ideas and fresh content. Our schools and colleges are hard pressed to offer that novelty and excitement and maybe events like this, in some infinitesimally small way, fill that gap. Can we do more?
Anthropologist and friend Durba Chattaraj, in this insightful piece, compares the ‘inconvenience’ experienced by ordinary and honest people as a consequence of Modi’s bold demonetization announcement to the ritual sacrifice of innocents in ancient civilizations across the world. “In many cultures across the world,” she writes, “the logic of sacrifice to expiate collective sin demanded that the purest, rather than the most corrupt, be offered up to the gods.” She goes on to wonder whether this concept is still valid if the majority, and not the symbolic few, are on the sacrificial altar.
Durba’s analogy has appealed to me because I am fascinated by the emotional logic and perhaps habitual hopefulness with which the poor in this country have taken this enormously disruptive move in their stride. And because I had the fortune of spending some time amidst Inka ruins a few weeks ago, I’m equally fascinated by her bid to compare the mores of a territorial and if I may say so, fairly aggressive people to the supposedly civilized and democratic setup of modern India. So let me take the opportunity to recall that journey….
Our journey to Ingapirca, an Inka site in the Canar district of Ecuador in October this year took us through winding mountain roads and fertile terrain. Far less dramatic that Macchu Pichu, the ruins of Ingapirca hug the terrain close but the Temple of the Sun, probably built as an astronomical observatory stands out. These were a people obsessed and vastly knowledgeable about the movements of the sun, which they worshiped as the ultimate power not unlike contemporary and even older civilizations across the world. What makes Ingapirca different though, in a departure from the usual script of war and conquer, circumstances forced them to settle differences with the local Canari people and they ended up intermarrying with them and living peacefully. The Canaris worshipped the moon and the Ingapirca ruins clearly demonstrate that both lunar and solar worship became part of the unique Inka-Canari culture.
We were fortunate to be assigned a passionate guide, whose enthusiasm and knowledge enabled him to surpass his language difficulties. Whenever he was unsure, he didn’t hesitate to take help the lady in our group who spoke both Spanish and English reasonably well. Interacting with him not only revealed the deeper secrets of the site but also offered some insights into the ongoing attempts by Ecuador and other Andean nations to preserve the language and oral histories of the indigenous people; his own attempts to learn Kechwa, the indigenous tongue, made an interesting tale.
Getting back to the ruins themselves, and the starting point in my post today, we had an animated discussion in Ingapirca about the practice of ritual sacrifice. We stared down at the grave of the High Priestess, with whom over a dozen children had been buried alive to tend to her in her journey after death. Children were considered the purest beings and hence ideal for sacrifice. They were fattened and treated well before the sacrifice and usually drugged to make it painless. In Ingapirca, archaeologists believe they were given a highly intoxicating drink made of coca leaves (we found the plant growing right there on the site!).
In present day India, the poor may well be the innocents who have made sacrifices post-demonetisation, losing work and wages for sure, and the state has indeed ordered rather than requested that they make it. While the Inka fattened the innocents for sacrifice, the poor have been promised redistribution or reward at a later date. The parallels make me want to question a bit our belief that choice, rationalism, debate and dialogue are hallmarks of the modern era we live in. In evolutionary terms, the span of time between the Inkas and us is only a blink and maybe as citizens we are still very much in that psychological space: content to not have a choice, accustomed to the powers taking our fate in their hands, always placing the survival of the clan above our own, happy for the rewards we might get but not necessarily assuming they will come….
In the rumble-tumble, scramble-ramble life that I lead, moments of reflection are snatched and savoured like rich Belgian chocolate. As I end the first day of 2017, I am filled with gratitude for the year gone by.
At a personal level, 2016 was a spectacular year for me, a year marked by extraordinary focus on research and learning, a year of achieving clarity in terms of not just my career but also how I see myself. It was a year that saw me blur the lines between mother, daughter, colleague and wife and make giant strides towards being just me, regardless and in spite of all of those relationships. A year in which I grew that thick skin that I had been wanting for so long, the type that accepts constructive criticism but stonewalls any negativity that does not teach me anything.
A year in which I leaped ahead and simply assumed that the safety nets would be there when I fell. And miraculously they were! People in my life who held me together, supported me in ways never imagined before. Events that unfolded before me unplanned.
A record year for travel, especially international. I visited Shenzhen in China, made three trips to Indonesia- one to Bali with friends, to Surabaya for a UN conference and then a whirlwind 12 day work trip covering 5 cities in that vast and fascinating archipelago. To top that, the dream trip to Quito in Ecuador did materialize and a short hop in Amsterdam and Paris was like the icing on the cake! I soaked in this travel year like a sponge, reveling in the new sights and sounds and smells, the conversations, the energy that comes with endless novelty. I fell in love with people and places, cultures and architecture all over again. I learned to pack better, plan better and be more organized. I also learned to un-plan and un-think and let things unravel. More importantly, on my travels I was reminded repeatedly of the inherent goodness of people, the sheer beauty of this world. And so, I have been filled with hope and positivism even as I have despaired and feared this year, as political and social events in India and abroad have threatened to shake the very foundations of what I believe in- rationality, humanism, equality, empathy and love.
I know the year ahead will be full challenges, but I feel far more prepared than I have ever felt before. For once, I seem to have accepted that things will be crazy, that there will be serious limits, that it is in my nature to go off script and that there is always learning in that. I feel less pressurized by the passage of time. I turned 40 this year, and that number sits very well with me, urging me to focus on quality, to savor the experience, to run my own unique race.
There is much to be done this year and I have my hands full. I pray for balance, for the ability to unplug and reset myself, for objectivity and for resilience. I pray for good health for everyone around me, I pray for sanity for the world. But most of all, I pray that we can all become children again for a few precious moments in this year ahead, so that we may remember that it all can be very very simple and yet extremely complex at the same time; that there is no contradiction, or that contradiction is the point!
Happy New Year everyone!
Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.
In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.
On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!
59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?
I’ve always been fascinated about the trajectories of everyday conversations. This morning, Aadyaa complained about the days getting shorter and we started talking about the forces and mechanisms of nature. That you can’t pick what you want, it’s a package deal!
That reminded me of Ingapirca (watch out for that post, coming soon!), an Inka ruin I visited in Ecuador where the intimate knowledge developed about solar and lunar cycles was evident. I commented on how amazing it was that man had learnt so much through observation and analysis even very far back in time. Udai, whose grade 7 history syllabus includes the European Middle Ages, reminded me that medieval Europe, to the contrary, went through a ‘dark’ period in which science was ignored and reviled. He went on to educate me about how he saw rationalism and empiricism as the two main approaches to scientific thinking.
The jump to present day politics in our conversation was inevitable. Is the rejection of rational thought as seen in majoritarian political behaviour the world over (especially in the use of unsubstantiated information as part of a communication strategy) part of a cyclical process? Could poor basic education that does not grant people the ability to engage with content, leavealone have an independent opinion, be part of the problem? Has credibility in post colonial India been (wrongly) built on status, class and the ability to speak English instead of facts? And is a backlash against liberal intellectuals about a re-evaluation of whether these attributes constitute credibility or is it built on something entirely different like effective communication that feeds into people’s fears?
By this time, the kids were in a contemplative mode, realising just how privileged they were to be in a good school, where standards of education are high and teachers competent. The bus arrived and they left.
When I got back home and checked my social media feed, an abusive comment from an acquaintance on a post that critiques India’s recent demonetisation policy brought home to me that we are fighting a very real war, one which is fuelled by resentment against those who are capable of providing the empirical evidence. Combined with an odious level of misogyny and low self-confidence, rendering those with an opinion legitimate targets of abuse. Especially if they are women.
This morning I was roped in to speak about the impacts of demonetisation on migrant workers by Gurgaon ki Awaz, a community radio station in Gurgaon, where I live. I was speaking on a live show with the mandate to highlight systemic problems that might impact migrant workers in particular ways in this predicament, when cash is hard to access. To offer context to those outside India, currency notes of particular denominations (Rs 500 and 100) stopped being legal tender at midnight on 8th November 2016, in a bid to eradicate black money (that has evaded taxation). In a cash-driven economy like India, this had a severe immediate impact and though, the mid- and long-term impacts are yet to be seen, some sections of society have been particularly hit.
Many migrant workers, as I outlined in the show, lack ID documents and have therefore been unable to exchange their old notes for now. The unbanked are of course in deep trouble. Many migrants are daily wagers, contract labourers as well as informal sector workers whose incomes have been immediately impacted. Further, since these workers support their rural homes through remittances, the impact on rural consumption is also expected to be substantial in the coming months.
My interaction with the station was interspersed with comments from callers, and this was an exciting and eye-opening experience for me. For one, opinions came in from opposing ends of the spectrum. The majority of callers supported demonetisation whole-heartedly, not minding the sacrifices they are having to make. The vindication that people were feeling about the dishonest rich being punished has generated much optimism. For the callers, it seemed like this move was successfully breaking down a hegemonic system that had oppressed them and kept them poor while benefiting the dishonest rich. This ‘great equalizer’ perception was reinforced by another supporter who described his experience of standing in a queue at the bank. He pointed out that the rich guy who got off his car also stood in the same line and got the same amount of money as him. Triumphant, he said, “Ameer ko do hazaar rupaye ki kadar to pata chali!”. At least, the rich now understand the value of two thousand rupees (this was the limit imposed by the government on withdrawals from bank accounts).
However, there was also a caller who were upset that those who disagreed are not being given the space to express their dissent.He brought up the importance of a strong opposition for a democracy to function well. Who will represent the voices of the minority who disagree with such a move, he asked?
This is heartening. While people are busy outshouting each other on Twitter and Facebook, debate is not dead on the ground and people are not afraid to speak their mind. Keep in mind that the community radio speaks to low- and middle-income communities largely residing in urban villages, unauthorised colonies and old parts of Gurgaon. It is has no English language programming and does not cater to the educated elite in the city.
Second, people spoke of various coping mechanisms, how they borrowed from friends or helped out an older neighbor by depositing her cash, how barter worked in some instances and credit in another. These are fascinating and deserving of documentation, for they tell of the resilience of communities when unexpected things happen.
Third, I was pleasantly surprised at the sharpness with which my suggestions about constructive ways of offering criticism was picked up by community radio audiences. I was making a point about the need for supplementary measures to help out those genuinely distressed by demonetisation, like rural households dependent on remittances, access to food and healthcare, etc. Immediately after I said this, we got calls reporting community discussions that centered around offering the government suggestions of various kinds and there was a clear call for more consultation and interaction with State. The people want a listening government was the sense I got.
As a researcher, hearing voices from the ground is critical to inform my understanding of the impact of government policies. This is not the first time we have found that perceptions differ starkly across economic class. On radio as well, local land owners and migrant workers expressed divergent views even within the dominant narrative of support for demonetisation. This is also not the first time we have seen multiple narratives bundled within even a single respondent’s story. The reality is that truth is complex. It is multifaceted, often warped and twisted. It takes enormous patience to refrain from picking out the simplest bits and making them ready for consumption as I have also (probably erroneously) done in this post. It takes immense courage to recognize and accept complexity. But the truth is also that people do accept and live with complexity and contradiction in a very effortless manner. For me, even in this supposedly post-truth era, deconstructing this gnarled truth is still the only way forward.
Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!
Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.
We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.
We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.
Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!
In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!
We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!
Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.
Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.
We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!