A lesson in loss of identity, misuse of power and.. in peace

It is the Dalai Lama’s birthday today and he addresses the world, urging us towards inner peace and tranquility. A month and a half ago, we were in McLeod Ganj at his abode. The drives and views were glorious, the weather perfect, the food delectable, but what really put this place in perspective for me was the little museum inside the temple complex that told the story of Tibet.

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

The prayer wheels, everywhere...

The prayer wheels, everywhere…

Faith in motion

Faith in motion

The sanctum inside the temple

The sanctum inside the temple

We were stepping into the museum after seeing the temple, where we had been entranced by monks practicing their rituals and had soaked in the curiously informal yet deeply spiritual, traditional yet uniquely modern feel of the temple. Beautifully curated, the exhibits told the story of the expropriation of Tibet by China, a story of war and a searingly painful loss of religion, culture and identity. The countless lives lost, the homes abandoned, the livelihoods destroyed were one part of the picture, but what came through was the poignant and enduring sense of betrayal, loss, deep sadness.

Udai read every word on display, peered into every single photograph. Aadyaa too sensed our mood from the stillness in the air and asked to be informed. Panel by panel, we went through the story of Tibet’s transformation from an independent State with a very distinct blend of cultural and religious identities to its present amalgamation with China. New concepts like self-immolation caused my children to widen their eyes with wonder and curiosity.

Udai compared the Tibetan story to the hacking off of Hindu sculptures by Portuguese colonizers at Elephanta Caves outside Mumbai, where we had been, fortuitously, just a week ago. It’s the same thing, he said. Someone comes and does not respect what they see. They are stronger, so they destroy it, without thinking.

Not just respect, I gently added, but also inability to tolerate. And a need to destroy what exists to exhibit power, establish supremacy, quell rebellion.

Why, he asked? Why did the Portuguese want Elephanta, why do the Chinese want Tibet so much that they would do this?

Land, mineral wealth, natural resources like water, basically wealth. It is not just foreigners who do this to someone. In our own country, many tribal areas are being destroyed to mine minerals by our own countrymen, because we need those minerals to feed our factories, make machines and products that we now use. I saw a deep sadness in Udai’s eyes and I knew that, at some level despite the complexity, I had been able to get through to him.

I have been wanting to write about my feelings ever since we returned from Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. It cut me deep, the story of these self-respecting, proud, stoic people. Everywhere you walked, they sat selling goods that tourists would like- jewelry, curios, umbrellas, hats. As they sat, many of them continued to work with their hands, sewing and knitting and creating macrame wrist bands too. Some were happy to talk, albeit with a reserve and hint of suspicion; others refused to even get pictures taken, especially the old men. Monasteries and workshops, NGOs galore, all trying to rehabilitate a broken people. How resilient they are, I kept thinking. To lose everything and then pick up the pieces is a truly remarkable thing.

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

Making wrist bands, constantly working...

Making wrist bands, constantly working…

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed...he has an artist's eye, my little one!

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed…he has an artist’s eye, my little one!

We missed hearing the Dalai Lama speak, but the spirit of the Tibetan leader left its mark on me. Many years ago, when Rahul used to fly the Dalai Lama often, I had had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak at a private audience. I had little background then, of what had transpired in Tibet, but hearing the stories of his escape from Tibet had sent shivers down my spine. Now perhaps, I understand a bit more of this fascinating maze of events. I have no answers, no one does. Nor do I know enough to have convictions. I am hesitant to paint people, nations, ideologies in black and white.

But in everything around me now- in the lessons we derive from Uttarakhand’s tragic flash floods, in the debate around Maoist rebellion in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, in stories of college students not being allowed to practice street theatre at Connaught Place’s central lawns, I see a stark mismatch between what is real and what we want to believe. I see a desperate need to slow down, to truly evaluate before we take steps forward, to be inclusive in how we build our community, our city, our nation. Above all, I feel a need to be calm, patient, and ways to control anger and despair and turn these into positive forces. The way I interpret it, this is what the Dalai Lama teaches us. I hope more of us are willing to step off the speeding train hurtling towards we-don’t-know-where, and listen!

Jaunt into the slums with two first timers-July 4, 2012

Going to the slums or an equivalent informal settlement is always a refreshing experience for me. Today, I had the delightful company of two undergraduates. Trap, a sociology major from Princeton and Isha, a history honours student from Chandigarh. We wove in and out of the narrow, winding streets where families sat and chatted, peeled vegetables and even napped, kids played and squabbled. One home had two bird cages with parrots in one and lovebirds in another, the indulgent resident looked lovingly at the birds and gave us a proud look when I patted the chirpers! We encountered many smiles and polite stares, no hostility. Isha wondered aloud about what we would do if such a visit got a hostile reaction. Frankly, it’s never happened to me!
On the outskirts of the slum, the young men hung out, jeering harmlessly, wondering about us and our intentions. Kids followed us. Isha had a conversation with one of them about school. He claimed he knew all his multiplication tables and then, cheekily, he wanted to know if she knew hers!
The amazing thing about informal settlements is their tremendous energy and the variety of activities. A walkabout can tell a lot about the income sources of the residents. We saw an all woman tiny workshop in which some sort of circuitry used in automobile horns was being assembled! The long line of hand pushcarts in the back lane told us many residents were vendors, most likely selling vegetables and fruits. Kabaadiwaalas were aplenty too and mountains of neatly segregated waste materials stood there awaiting transportation to different destinations where they would be recycled.
I was particularly enamoured by the charpais we saw- colourful and neatly woven, they told the story of a skill nearly lost but still valued here among the poor. Tonight, as cool monsoon winds blow outside and my terrace looks more inviting a place to rest than my still warm bedroom, I long to own one of those charming charpais.

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Informality integral to Delhi’s identity, nurture it! May 10, 2012

I was delighted to see this video from Philips Livable Cities Initiative profiling New Delhi. Indeed, I agree that one of Delhi’s biggest challenges is to refrain from copying what other cities have done without really thinking it through. Delhi has such a unique identity shaped by its complex and interesting past and added to everyday by the thousands who migrate in and out of this melting pot; indeed, it would be a great pity to dilute its unique character.

I loved the fact that the video highlights one of the aspects I love best about Delhi- its informality. In fact, the piece highlights what I have always believed, that its informal economy is the soul of this city. One has to only look around to see how innovative citizens are about how they earn their livelihood. I blogged about Sarojini Nagar market and Sikanderpur, an urban village as great examples of thriving markets. Messy kitschy is what Delhi loves, while more organized, formal retail often gets miserably low footfalls. Small businesses, street markets, street-side food and public spaces full of noise and life are desirable to Delhi-ites. Clearly, it is upto designers, planners and policy makers to intervene to public spaces conducive to nurture small businesses.

Like anywhere, it is vital for Delhi’s citizens to be proud of their city. They already are! Most recently, we have seen an enormous fillip in the city’s self-image after the success of the Delhi Metro (and Delhi Daredevils, I dare say!). It would certainly be a blessing if experts and government could join hands to, as the video suggests, preserve the city’s heritage and revive its waterways and green spaces to create a cleaner, more livable urban environment.

 

 

Strong women, meaningful work- How Padma Shri awardees Laila Tyabji and Geeta Dharmarajan inspire me- Jan 25, 2012

I scrolled down the list of Padma awardees and of course, there are several I know of and several others who don’t mean much to me. But two of them are people I happen to have met recently and been very impressed by. Laila Tyabji, founder Dastkar is easily one of the most graceful women I have met and Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha disarmed me by her complete humility. My interactions with both reiterated my belief in passion being the driving force for change!

I meet Lailaji in the context of the India Urban Conference that I had been involved with in the latter half of 2011. I was helping a friend put together the ‘City in Public Culture’ theme and we had involved Ms Tyabji to speak at a session focused on the link between arts & crafts and development. She presented her case entirely from the point of view of the artisan, outlining clearly the linkages between livelihood, poverty and dignity; elaborating their struggles in the context of rapid urbanization, industrialization and socio-economic changes that have both created a market for the crafts and devalued them at the same time. Positioning the arts & crafts in India as not a dying industry, but one that is resilient and adaptive, Lailaji rued that India’s development agenda gave more credence to growth in sheer numbers than to skills and long-term growth agendas. Her empathy with the communities she works with, her clarity in her understanding of the political agenda and her commitment to offering the craftspeople a platform comes from an inner conviction that arts & crafts are linked with identity and dignity, two themes that lie at the very core of our existence as a society and will determine the legacy India is giving the world.

Having recently interacted with a community of leather workers, embroiderers and jewelry makers and seen first-hand the tremendous importance their skills played in their local economy and social fabric and indeed their self-image (especially in the case of women), I was able to internalize and appreciate further the content of Lailaji’s discourse.

I met Geeta Dharmarajan in context of the same project, when the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation called a meeting of the state and city-level nodal officers for the Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY) with a selection of community-based organizations at HUDCO a few months ago. The meeting was unique in having the objective of building a platform for government officials at state and municipal levels to understand issues from a community perspective, in the hope that innovative approaches would evolve to implement the slum-free agenda of RAY.

Geetaji made a strong case for the role youth can play in implementing development interventions in low-income communities. She shared many examples of how youth empowerment and training had provided communities with the agile, skilled workforce that assisted local businesses to become more efficient. She spoke about how young people with a sense of purpose were changing perceptions in their families and larger communities. Later, she attended a follow up meeting specific to Delhi where she further urged the Ministry to consider a project for mobilizing youth to conduct government surveys, thereby collecting richer, more valuable, community-centric information that could be used for effective redevelopment designs for slums. Her focus and belief in youth was impressive; so was her ability to speak up for her cause in a much larger context and force audiences to pay attention through her simplicity and conviction. Speaking to her later, I was extended a warm invitation to visit their field areas and experience their initiatives first hand.

We don’t need to quantify the good work Dastkar and Katha have done. What strikes me most is that these organization work with, not for the communities they engage with. Just feeling the force of the personalities of these two women, the tremendous involvement in their work and the sheer respect they command is sufficient to know that they, through their organizations, are making significant impacts on the section of society that most needs our innovation, empathy and passion, not mere charity!