Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

Saving the Aravallis: Documenting Gurgaon’s persistent environmental activism

Much has been said and written about the urbanism of Gurgaon. Amidst uproar and negativity over the general failure of governance, a core group of citizens has been persistently highlighting pressing issues relating to environmental conservation. More specifically, they have brought attention to the urgent need to conserve the sections of the Aravallis that runs through Haryana. To bring these concerns to the State government, citizens walked together a year ago (I blogged about it then), and we did so again today.

What did our movement achieve and what drives us now to continue efforts to engage with the government on issues that have been particularly hard to raise in India at large, but more particularly in a State where mining and real estate interests are politically powerful and directly pitted against us?

This time, last year: A specific call to action to save Mangar Bani

The trigger for the call to action, when we gathered at Kachra Chowk a year ago on 26th April 2015, was the imminent changes in land use regulation that would permit the declassification of forest land and open it to real estate development. A group of focused citizens, some of whom are ecologists, geologists and environmental experts, made convincing arguments that underscore the need to protect the Aravallis to ensure the survival of cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad. These arguments revolve around the basics, like protecting the main water recharge zone for the region, as well as more evolved arguments that call for a different imagination of the city as a place that embraces nature. As a powerful symbol of what nature was capable of, the group decided to focus on the protection of Mangar Bani,  a sacred grove protected by local communities that lies between Gurgaon and Faridabad. I wrote last year about the movement, during which a successful online petition was floated and many citizens, children included, were involved at the time.

These concerted efforts resulted in the Haryana government announcing a protected status for Mangar Bani in early 2016. It is extremely positive that 677 acres of Mangar Bani Sacred Grove has been identified for protection, plus a buffer of between 60m to 500m will be taken up for restoration. This amounts to a buffer area of 1100-1200 acres, which will act as a major watershed for the region as well as restore the already rich biodiversity of the Aravallis. The progressive work on mapping and demarcating these areas has been encouraging, says Chetan Agarwal, who has been deeply involved in the research on Mangar Bani.

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Pushing the envelope for long-term benefits

Today’s walk was intended to demand a follow through of the promises made. The final notification for the Mangar Bani Sacred Grove remains pending and the group is highlighting the urgency of this step. After notification, corresponding changes are required to be notified in records and plans, in order for the protection status to have adequate impact on future development plans for Gurgaon and Faridabad.

And Mangar is only the first step. Much more needs to be done to protect the fragile Aravallis that are facing sever environmental degradation. First, the group urges the State government to notify the Aravallis around Gurgaon as a city forest. The city’s only forested area, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, has been developed from a brownfield mining site. A collaborative effort of the citizens and municipal government, ABP has become a paradise for citizens to experience open space and nature. But there is considerable opportunity to do much more. By protecting the existing Aravalli areas and developing them as city forests, Gurgaon will join the illustrious list of global cities that recognize and celebrate the health benefits of sensitively integrating forest areas into urban development. The benefits of forests in improving air quality, and long-term benefits of living in proximity to nature are well documented and practised by cities across the world.

Second, the group requests the State government to identify sanctuaries and national parks in Haryana’s Aravallis. Mangar Bani, for example, should be made into a sanctuary. The Aravallis as a whole should be declared a deemed forest and made part of the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ). There exist today subtle ways to keep large areas of the Aravallis out of the NCZ in a ‘to be determined’ category. This category must be deleted, so that the commitment to conservation is clear and strong. Areas of the Aravalli foothills that have been currently kept out the the NCZ are equally important and must be included. Further, the eco-sensitive zones for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary must stretch to include major lakes – Damdama, Badkhal, Dhauj, and also the mining pits which have exposed groundwater and the buffer for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary on the Haryana side increased. Finally, privatised land in the Aravallis must be restored to panchayat ownership.

These actions will give firm signals against future exploitation of these ecologically sensitive areas for real estate and infrastructure development. Furthermore, these steps appear critical for the survival of these cities, critical as they are to the recharge of groundwater in the region.

Globally, environmental gains for cities have almost entirely resulted from sustained and informed citizen activism. There is no glamour in this sort of activism. It is extremely hard work and I salute all those who are working hard behind the scenes to keep these issues burning and alive in Gurgaon. Walks like today’s gives citizens like me an opportunity to do our little bit. We must hope that every little bit counts.

Of Gurgaon and Gurugram: Nay to shouting matches, yay to meaningful debate

Gurgaon’s renaming has come as a bolt from the blue for most people I know. I’ve been a resident of Gurgaon for over 12 years and many of my friends have lived here longer. It isn’t just shock, it  is also disappointment and anger at the government’s decision to focus on something cosmetic like a name change when so much meaningful action needed to take place. Others worry about the sheer cost incurred in changing an address. Still others are raising the issue of identity and the right of citizens to be consulted before such decisions are taken. But then that’s the thing….. who is considered a citizen worth consulting? how is the consulting done? The Devil is truly in the details. Even as an online petition is floated by a dear friend requesting the CM to hold widespread citizen consultations before the decision goes up the the State Cabinet and the Union Home Ministry (link to petition here, news item about it here), it comes to light that in 2014 a zealous Gurgaon councillor has already done the requisite consultation and got a slew of people to participate in a signature campaign to reclaim the honour of the city and call it Gurugram!

The resolution passed by the municipality in 2014 is the basis for the recent renaming and it is clear from social media feeds that people are divided on the issue. For every person who raises rational arguments related to cost or prioritization, there is someone sold on the idea of reclaiming a glorious past. In all this Veena Oldenburg’s argument about the symbolism of honouring Dronacharya is worth a mention. Dronacharya is infamous for demanding Eklavya’s right thumb as gurudakshina, thus ensuring the socially disadvantaged but talented Eklavya could not rival his royal protege, famous Mahabharata warrior Arjun.

And so, while I am all for taking pride in history, we must think about what that history implies. Whose history is important? What symbols are we glorifying and what do they say about us as a people today? What pains me is that no one is thinking and talking about the issues. There seems to be no space for an open and vibrant debate. Not even on social media, which should enable dialogue instead of becoming the site of abusive shouting matches. Unless we create and nurture spaces of discussion and debate, how do we raise a new generation of creative and enlightened individuals? I wonder….

Homemade snacks: ‘Lahiya’ and ‘kheel’ mixes

In the generally carb-rich Indian diet, namkeen (savoury) mixes occupy a special place. Nearly every part of the country I’ve lived in has its own set of these. In many homes across India, these are homemade at regular intervals and stored in steel dabbas (boxes) to be consumed as snacks at teatime or whenever the hunger pangs get the better of you. In my childhood days in Bombay, for instance, chivda was de rigueur in Maharashtrian homes, a tasty mixture of deep fried flattened rice with coconut slivers and peanuts garnished with curry leaves and red chillies. When we moved to Lucknow, lahiya chana, a quickly rustled up mix of roasted puffed rice and gram was commonly eaten as a healthy snack. Come Diwali and kheel, another type of puffed rice, used for the Lakshmi puja is consumed as freshly roasted mixes for days to come, till stocks last.

In urban Indian households like ours, homemade snacks are fading away and it’s a real pity. There isn’t any time to make them and a variety of snacks, including ‘diet’ items are easily available at the superstore. What’s more, with online ordering, the superstore comes home, so it’s no effort to have a stash of munchies ready at home.

I find that stash does not satisfy me. It’s got too much salt, too much oil and trans fat and I certainly don’t trust the ‘diet’ labels. What’s more, they don’t taste fresh. I find myself craving for the simple namkeens of my childhood. Hence, the Sunday morning frenzy to rustle up these two simple snacks. Neither of these are deep fried, nor are they ‘diet’. They are just normal food, so don’t think too much. Just make them and eat them!

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Above: Lahiya mix; Below: Kheel mix

Recipes

Lahiya mix

Put a tablespoon of cooking oil in a heated kadhai (anything you can roast stuff in will do, wok like!). To the heated oil, add green chillies (slit don the middle), rai or black sesame seeds and curry leaves, heeng (asafoetida), turmeric powder, red chilli powder, dry pudina powder. Wait till the rai splutters. Add puffed rice and roasted peanuts (you will have to dry roast them before) and mix well. I added to this mix some leftover namkeen that had been bought for a party- sev, moong dal and bhuna chanaa, but this is optional and sicne these are deep fried it does add some serious calories! Add salt as desired. Let this cool and store in air tight boxes, preferably the traditional shiny steel ones for the real desi effect:)

Can be stored for a week or two easily.

Kheel mix

To a teaspoon of heated oil, add thinly sliced onion and garlic, turmeric powder, whole red chillies, heeng (asafoetida) and dry pudina powder. Let the onions turn brown. Add the kheel and pre-roasted peanuts and stir for 5 minutes. Add salt as desired.

Best eaten fresh, but can be stored for a few days in an air tight container.

Glimpses from Prayas 2016 #kathak

Adapted from http://rasikperformingarts.com

Coinciding with Republic Day, one of India’s three national holidays and one dedicated to celebrating our democratic Constitution, the talented dancers of Rasik Performing Arts presented its annual show in Epicentre, Gurgaon. For our dancers, Prayas 2016 was a culmination of a year’s learning under the gracious guidance of Guru Jayashree Acharya. I’ve been fortunate to learn from her and be part of this show and earlier ones for the past few years.

The blessed presence of Pandit Birju Mahahrajji at our show filled the atmosphere with a special electric charge. We all felt it and we hope our performances did justice to his great art and all-encompassing love and mentorship. Over 85 young dancers performed under Rasik’s banner during the evening, bringing a variety of items to a packed hall of rasiks and well wishers.

We were also honoured to have guests artists, dancers from Aakriti Foundation trained under Smt Sushmita Ghosh and eminent instrumental musicians Madhu Gopal, Goutam, Sunnu and Shiv Shankar perform at Prayas 2016.

Catch a few glimpses from Prayas 2016 below. We will post videos soon!

Pt. Birju Maharajji inaugurating Prayas 2016 and blessing all of us present Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanti

Pt. Birju Maharajji inaugurating Prayas 2016 and blessing all of us present
Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Our youngest dancers presenting Guru Vandana Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Our youngest dancers- Aparna, Bhuvi, Samaira, Shambhavi, Yavi, Meher, Yuvika, Raima, Pari and Panchhi- presenting ‘Guru Vandana’, an invocation to Goddess Saraswati
Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

‘Akaash’ by Mahi, Sneha, Ishita, Vrinda, Krisha, Anvi, Saraa, Suhani, Varaa, Eesha, Samaira, Shriya, Stuti, Manya, Lavanya, Kimaya, Ishita, Navya, Ashi, Adya, and Tishya Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Prasad-4

Shuddha Nirtya in Jhaptaal by Anuradha, Anya, Arshiya, Arushi, Arzoo, Ashley, Dhrity, Eesha, Joanna, Malvika, Katya, Nandini, Nishtha, Panya, Riya, Sanjana, Nayanika, Sifat, Suhani, and Vidushi                                                                                                                                                            Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Prasad-5

Sargam in Bilawal by Anya, Ashna, Aditi, Elaina, Anahita, Anushka, Devina, Khushi, Mihika, Mansi, Palak, Simran, Tisha, Vedanshi, and Vritika                                                                             Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Thumri- 'Dekho ri langar' by Shruti, Saumya, Simran and Mukta Photo credit- Prasad Siddhanthi

Thumri- ‘Dekho ri langar’ by Shruti, Saumya, Simran and Mukta
Photo credit- Prasad Siddhanthi

Guru Jayashree Acharya Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Guru Jayashree Acharya
Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Jog tarana, Composed by Prateep Banerjee Anandi, Mahika Nair, Mahika Zutshi, Devyani, Ketaki, Nandini, Revati, Shubhangini, Saloni Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Jog tarana, Composed by Prateep Banerjee
Anandi, Mahika Nair, Mahika Zutshi, Devyani, Ketaki, Nandini, Revati, Shubhangini, Saloni
Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Chaturang, including 4 elementsof dance, percussion, sahitya, and gaana Dancers- Anya, Anumita, Anusha, Riya, Nandini, Yukti, Vaidehi, Khushi Photo: Prasad Siddhanthi

Chaturang, including 4 elements of dance, percussion, sahitya, and gaana
Dancers- Anya, Anumita, Anusha, Riya, Nandini, Yukti, Vaidehi, Khushi
Photo: Prasad Siddhanthi

'Madhav'. A Krishna Bhajan by Anandi, Mahika Nair, Mahika Zutshi, Devyani, Ketaki, Nandini, Revati, Shubhangini, Saloni Photo credit- Prasad Siddhanthi

‘Madhav’. A Krishna Bhajan by Anandi, Mahika Nair, Mahika Zutshi, Devyani, Ketaki, Nandini, Revati, Shubhangini, Saloni
Photo credit- Prasad Siddhanthi

The guru shishya parampara has lessons for modern education systems

Several scholars and social commentators are making the link between the rising tide of overt nationalism and a discomfort over the democratic nature of some educational spaces in India today. Janaki Nair, the feminist and historian from JNU, wrote yesterday in The Hindu that:

“The moral panic that has gripped large sections of the Indian public is… related to the fears about the democratising opportunities offered by campuses today. In this expression of outrage, the newly moralising Right ….. aims to replace critical thinking with worship, forms of hard-won equality with structures of deference, and forms of new community-building with a return to the ideal of the patriarchal “family”.”

She goes on to cite an example that is a bit uncomfortable for me. She sees in the Indian Council of Historical Research’s program to institute fellowships that will foster a Guru-Shishya parampara a patriarchal design. She says that shishyas will be tied in “a relationship of obedience and honour, rather than thinking and debating”. She sees this as a problem.

While I buy her point about the important place of critique and question in the process of learning (refer my earlier post on this issue), I’m not sure her understanding of guru shishya parampara is accurate. I’m no authority on the subject, but I’ve been a shishya, first of Hindustani classical music for many years and in recent years of kathak. In these years, I’ve interacted with many gurus and shishyas, heard many stories of how the gurus learnt and experienced first hand the complexity of this relationship and my comments are limited to the learning of the performing arts.

The relationship between the guru and shishya has some prescribed rules. Broadly, the shishya is expected to train rigorously and usually has limited freedom until this period of training is completed. This period may vary. Modern gurus permit their shishyas to perform in public much earlier than what was the norm a generation ago. Once the shishya is past her training period, she is not only free to make her own adaptations and improvisations to her art but is in fact expected to do so, while taking the traditions of her guru and gharana forward. A good guru will appreciate out of the box thinking, though the tolerance to deviating from the gharana’s essential style may vary. In the classical arts, learning is a lifelong process. In the traditional form of the gurukul, theoretical training involved both reading and debates among students and with the guru. The education was not designed to be a one-way dictatorial process and Prof Nair seems to imagine, though the status of the guru was (and is) undoubtedly exalted, with respected to her many years of rigorous sadhna and the exalted knowledge derived from this.

There are many positives to this model in my view – a long period of sustained interaction, an expectation of commitment, peer-to-peer learning and the setting of high standards. I do not believe the guru shishya parampara is in conflict with freedom of expression or dissent; yes, it is a system in which charting your own path comes after years spent learning the basics and that is the nature of the kind of knowledge the system was designed to impart.

In today’s far more transactional education system, with its short-term targets and restricted rather than expansive curriculum, the guru shishya parampara often finds itself out of sync. That I do perceive. I also feel that our dislike of religion-based politics must not blind us to the positive aspects of our traditions. And so, instead of writing it off, we must reflect on how to weave in some of its positives into our discourse on pedagogy and education.

The Maidens Hotel, a sliver of ‘old world’ amidst Delhi’s chaos

A colleague had an amazing idea. To take a bunch of us away from our usual office conference room to an alternate location for a day long brainstorm. A retreat within the city, she called it. In her infinite wisdom, she chose The Maidens Hotel in Civil Lines. And she stuck to her plan despite the flimsy excuses that others offered to escape the imprisonment of a location far from the buzz!

I felt a bit cheated at getting no opportunity to explore this lovely property that was built in 1903 to host guests attending the famous Delhi Durbar. Here are a few hasty shots taken post sunset. I’ll be back for more!

   
    
 

Re-reading Bhagat Singh: Those who question and disbelieve pave the path to progress

As political parties around us continue to appropriate and re-appropriate historic figures from the past in a desperate (and despicable) attempt to reap mileage from their reflected glory, a few days ago we reflected on the idea of revisiting the writings and documentation of some of these resurrected (and often misinterpreted) heroes. Fittingly, we started this journey on Shahid Diwas, a day to mark the martyrdom of the three icons of the revolutionary side of the Indian struggle for Independence- Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. The idea was connected to a discussion last week between Udai (my nearly 12 year old son) and my mother-in-law on atheism and belief, the chief takeaway being the importance of informed opinion that builds from a knowledge of all possible points of view, not just one’s own position.

In this context, we decided to read Bhagat Singh’s famous Essay titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’, written in October 1930 and available here in an English translation from the Punjabi original. I made Udai read it aloud to us (and several new words were learnt and discussed along the way, but that’s another discussion). I hadn’t read it before either and it was eye-opening. I’m sharing some excerpts that I think are particularly relevant, both to today’s political situation in India and to my immediate objective of expanding the debate within our home.

Questioning the status quo

Udai’s outcries against religion (and many children go through this phase) are almost always based on the idea of the lack of scientific proof that a higher omnipresent power exists. Add to that the idea of what the rational arguments could be for or against the existence of God. Bhagat Singh’s passionate plea in support of his atheism, however, rests on the idea that a periodic critique of existing ideas and beliefs is the only way forward. He writes:

“It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.

“Any person who claims to be a realist has to challenge the truth of old beliefs. If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it collapses. After that his task should be to do the groundwork for new philosophy. This is the negative side. After that comes in the positive work in which some material of the olden times can be used to construct the pillars of new philosophy.”

The corollary: When society represses the urge to question and shrinks that space, especially for young people, we also throttle the pathways to progress.

Belief in oneself despite all odds

All atheists I know have an unwavering faith in themselves, including my late father with whom long discussions on the matter of religion and belief systems were a common occurrence. It is not that they are devoid of self-doubt. On the contrary, they have no choice but to work very hard to find conviction within themselves, to question their own actions and motivations frequently and they work to re-focus themselves. It is an exhausting task!

This is because the solace of faith, in which sacrifice and good behaviour is ‘rewarded’ by freedom from re-birth (as in Hinduism) or the experience of paradise (as in Islam, Christianity) is not available to an atheist. Bhagat Singh points this out very clearly as he counters the allegations that atheist is born out of vanity or arrogance. Remember, he wrote this only a day or two before he was sentenced to death.

“Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds. In difficult times, vanity, if it remains, evaporates and man cannot find the courage to defy beliefs held in common esteem by the people. If he really revolts against such beliefs, we must conclude that it is not sheer vanity; he has some kind of extraordinary strength. This is exactly the situation now. First of all we all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be!”

Some questions raised: Does your religion empower you or does it work as your crutch? Are the positions of atheism and faith contradictory or can they both find space in a broader discussion on morality, empathy and self-empowerment?

What are we learning from Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom and struggle?

It is getting harder and harder to propose empathy and cooperation as strategies to wage a war that is increasingly violent, repressive and chauvinistic, be this the war on terrorism, the war of identities or the war with oneself as young people navigate the complex pathways to economic mobility and ‘success’. There is no patience for this approach, which is perceived as too slow, too risky. The dangers are put forward as imminent, the solutions needed as urgent. The liberal perspective is not exciting, perceived as the bastion of those already comfortable, and run down as impractical for a nation full of impatient youth in a race to get ahead.

But think: Are the dangers we face today any different in urgency that what Bhagat Singh and Rajguru faced in the 1920s? Are the quandaries and moral dilemmas those young men found themselves in any less heart wrenching and difficult? If Bhagat Singh could question what was prevalent, so must young people today. And that is the legacy we must take forward. Not the machismo, not the ‘nationalism’, but the thinking and rationalism that drove it.

Personalities

They are as different as chalk and cheese, my children. One is camera shy and a quintessential bookworm, in love with trivia, already geekily inclined. The other is a self-professed ‘Mondo’- half monkey, half dog (no space for human!). Sporty, wild, social, comfortable with considerable artistic expression. 

They are best friends and the worst of enemies, you never know which is when. They are in that stage when their personalities are beginning to emerge, take shape. And it’s fascinating to observe how much happens every passing day in their busy busy lives. 

A pic to illustrate the sheer joy of being a child. And the fun you can have when you can be whatever you are, whatever you want to be…..

Pic credits: my friend Maneesha and mom, Sita  

Learning to be unapologetic: My own brand of feminism

If there is anything I have learnt in my journey into feminism, it is the strength to be unapologetic. Let me explain.

The experience of being a woman in Indian society is hugely shaped by relationships to men. From the time of birth, a woman is defined as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother. While relationships bind men too, men are also encouraged to develop independent personalities. Cast in the role of bread winners and ‘heads of households’, developing an independent identity is seen as necessary and assertion is very much considered a masculine trait.

For many girls of my generation who were fortunate to be born into families where women were relatively emancipated, growing up was largely about finding an identity that detached itself slightly from the fetters of those relationships but we were expected to perform the balancing act and still hold on to them.

I am not cut out to be a non-conformist, so in my student years and and as a young mother, I struggled to maintain that balance. To meet my ideals of being a good daughter (excel is academics/work, be well-behaved), a good wife (supportive, a peaceable companion), a good mother (available, involved, loving, one who prioritizes her children over all else). Of course, the ideals themselves were reflective of a certain attitude to gender in our society, but that’s how it was and perhaps still is.

But somewhere along the way, it became very tiring to toe that line, to always be in the midst of that balancing act. I realized that being constantly up there on the balancing beam only diminished my chances of succeeding at those very self-expressed ideals. Each time I yelled at my kid, or over-reacted to something my husband said, I felt something was fundamentally off.

And then realization dawned. I realized I was constantly apologizing for myself in my head. I was being so hard on myself, holding myself to some golden standard and apologizing- to myself, to my family, my friends even. That was something I was determined to change.

At about the same time, I started to read feminist texts and blogs and interact with feminist thinkers. I was fascinated by the idea of sprouting wings that would help me detach myself from bounds. But the emphasis on freedom and emancipation puzzled me. Not only was it important for me to be unapologetic about what I did and how I behaved (within the bounds of humanism and reason), it also became vital for me to challenge those notions of feminism that urged me to feel ashamed of my dependence on my spouse, my sense of involvement with my children or my unwitting endorsement of patriarchal social rituals. I became truly unapologetic. I became a follower of my conscience. I began to hold a harsh mirror to myself, but with one big rule. To never feel sorry about myself. To do what I think is right. To never allow apology and shame to haunt me, but to learn from my errors and keep moving forward.

Happy International Women’s Day!thumb_DSCN0914_1024

Discovering Feminism in the Heart of India

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