There were times in my scribbling life when I felt completely useless. All those quotes would stare at me, mock at me. Did it matter that I carried the thoughts of those I had written about with me? Would that change anything?
I tried getting more involved beyond the call of my job, but how many would benefit? What happened to the beggars I had sat with – were they not back to their places with their hands outstretched? Were the commercial sex workers any better off after talking to me? Of course I remember sitting on the floor eating dal-chappati-chutney with them, but did they have a way out to fill their bellies? I may have had strong objection to bulldozers ramming into hutments and stood there as broken homes and strewn aluminium vessels lay on the floor, but could I stop the crying of those hearts that would again pick up bamboo sticks to build their shanties? I saw bullet-ridden walls and bodies, and held people close to me as they related their stories, but would their wounds heal?
“Don’t blame yourself for everything,” my friends used to say.
I wasn’t. I just held on to a stray thread of hope, waiting for it to turn to elastic so that it would stretch far. But having stretched far would it not snap back?
There have been a couple of wonderful memories that I have written about…like sitting on the wall outside a church with Charlie. The first handshake with him, a handshake that conveyed so much; Charlie had AIDS and at that time few knew how to deal with such people. I too thought I was doing something important. But slowly as we talked and the sky turned a flaming orange, we went to his building terrace and spoke some more. He told me about his sins, about the unprotected and unleashed lust that had got him to this state. He had a few years left and he was working out to build his muscles. Charlie was attractive in a rugged way.
Then I recall how on one assignment in Dharavi, known as the largest slum in Asia, there was one kid with a bad reputation who I interviewed regarding child labour. We went into a little tea-shop and I continued my questions, “Aapko pataa hai…aap kyon…aap kahaan se…??” that sort of thing. He answered twice and then he snapped in Bambaiya Hindi, “Yeh aap-aap kya lagayela kab se, seedha tu bol na!”
I was using the language I use for everyone, at least in form of address; he had perhaps never been addressed in this manner. He became uncomfortable. He felt patronised. He did not know how to respond.
In the next hour, he was calling me “Didi”. I learned an important lesson. If you stay as true to yourself as is possible without wanting to change others, then you don’t lose out on anything. I was doing my work…if that boy, despite what he had become, could bring himself to talk in a manner different from the one he was accustomed to, then I do take it as a compliment. The fact that I still remember a small man, in a small place doing small work means that it is possible to get enlightened in the smallest of ways.
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And now to something else. I did not ever imagine Salam Azad would find me. It was important for him to find me for me to know more about him outside the confines of search engines.
It is always satisfying for a writer to have people identify, argue, discuss one’s work. But when that work enables an opening up of further knowledge from a source that would be resigned to a fair degree of anonymity, then it makes one’s efforts feel worth at least the paper/monitor they are written on.
Salam Azad has spoken out against several issues in Bangladesh. Recently on reading a new article of mine elsewhere on the Brick Lane controversy, he wrote to thank me for mentioning him.
I will not use his emails verbatim here for he writes in Bangla, a language he is more comfortable in than English. But in essence this is what he has said: He has written 41 books. His novel Bhanga Math (Shattered Dream) was banned in Bangladesh on 18th July 2004 when he was not in the country; he was attending a conference in Geneva. English and Hindi translations are available. His Hindi publisher in Delhi is Rajkamal, phone: 011-23274463, 23288769; Vani, Phone: 011-23273167, 011-51562622; Probath, Phone: 011-23289555, 011-23289666 and English publisher is Bookwell, Phone: 011-23268786.
His naiveté is touching when he asked, “Did you read my banned book Ban in Bangladesh?"
How would it not be banned? And who can deny the courage of this person as opposed to the much-lauded Taslima Nasreen’s PR machinery?
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People are sending us sweets in the festive season; they are calling up to wish for a happy year. Some send bulk cards without even signing their names. And you are supposed to thank/respond in kind. I appreciate gestures, so I don't turn away.
Yet I cannot forget that there are so many Lakshmis in the villages and slums, named after the goddess of wealth. Life is full of ironies.
This blog is for those nameless people who gave me so much by way of understanding their wealth of patience, dignity and calm and asked for nothing in return.
"Hum ko na koi bulaae, na koi palake bichhaae
ai gham ke maaroun, manzil waheen hai, dam ye toote jahaan
andhe jahaan ke andhe raaste, jaaye to jaaye kahaan"