31.7.06

How beggars are made...

Tonight we watched a story unfold: of how doctors take money to amputate perfectly healthy limbs of beggars from the Mafia that runs the show. IBN-CNN must be commended for this expose, “Why beggars don’t scream” , but will it stop here?

Another televised drama? We have been promised that the case will be pursued, the offending doctors will be arrested…ministers have assured that action will be taken.

Let us look beyond that. Will it stop at these three doctors trapped in the sting operation? Is it restricted to Ghaziabad? What about instances of quacks operating?

The existence of a beggar mafia has been fairly common knowledge, and some of us who have done stories know that territories are marked by groups. The police get hafta (bribe), the kingpin gets his cut and usually the beggar gets just food.

I suspect that not much will happen to the doctors.

A few years ago I had followed up a case of neglect that could have led to death. A wrong blood group diagnosis prior to surgery. In a chawl at the far suburb of Ghatkopar in Mumbai resided this lower middle-class family; they put all their papers and trust before me. It was late night when I left them.

Next morning I decided to meet the doctor. I entered the clinic and after a very long wait his wife, also a doctor, told me he was not in town. It was a lie for the fruit vendor outside had in fact given me the exact address and also confirmed his presence.

When I went out, I told him he wasn’t in. “Aisa kaise ho sakta hai? Hum ne khud dehka aatey hue aur unki gaadi bhi yahaan hai.” (How is it possible? I saw him enter and his car is still there.)

It was raining outside. I crossed the street and lay in wait, hoping for something. Nothing. The showers were getting incessant and I was drenched. It must have been the time of a blink of an eye when I saw THE car get out of the gate. I couldn’t move. Where would I? How? It was a helpless situation. I left. An hour later a colleague from a magazine told me that he had got a call from the doctor, he was a nice man, very influential. The message was that I should keep shut.

I did not.

What happened? Did the family get anything out of it? No. Except that they had raised their voice. No action was taken despite their case being put before the medical council.

Slowly, it was almost forgotten…a year or so later I was shocked to read that this doctor had been given some award by his own fraternity.

The media today has a greater reach, more influence. It should use it as a weapon against offenders and act as a shield for those who need protection.

As for me, that scene still haunts me of a car that escaped and the rain that wouldn’t stop. It haunts me that I could do nothing. Absolutely nothing.

28.7.06

What is rotten about the state of Israel?

I was asked to join a candle-light vigil for Lebanon in California. I had attended a lecture at Stanford and am on their mailing list. They asked us to carry Lebanese flags. The intention was honourable.

I was, however, more than disappointed to read this: “The US government is not only betraying its values by permitting this destruction to continue unabated. It is undermining the safety of the American people by exponentially increasing anti-Americanism and extremism in the region. The US seems to have adopted an abhorrent strategy that theorizes that blood-letting is the solution for "peace" in the MiddleEast.The people in the Middle East and around the world look to the United States to uphold the values that are at the heart of America, and it is tragic tosee US leaders unwilling to act in accordance with them.”

So is it all about the fear of anti-Americanism? Then why a hue and cry when Muslims express such fears about anti-Islamism? And who has informed the United States that the people of the Middle East or the rest of the world look to America for “values”?

Most of the nations of the world were born before the US was discovered by default.

Besides all this, carrying Lebanese flags in the heart of the country that is abusing it amounts to intellectual colonisation, in my view. It would be far better to ask the government of the US to shut up and work on its internal politics and save its soldiers from death, desperation and behaving in often utterly dehumanising ways. For, unnecessary wars are a show of machismo – and they have to live upto the role-playing.

I am giving excerpts from a piece I wrote on Israel and Palestine:




Ariel Sharon had once said, “We control America”. This is such a change from the former Prime Minister, the late Golda Meir, stating, “Israel is really a safeguard for the maintenance of American interests in the area, and the first line of defence for the American interests in the Mediterranean basin.”

It is important to evaluate the rotten state of Israel. Let me clarify here that it is only when I got a first-hand account that I started speaking up for the Palestinian cause. The minute I saw the Palestinian embassy in Delhi, I knew that we were talking about a displaced people. Anyone who has passed through the diplomatic enclave will vouch for the plushy facades of the various consulates and embassies; not this one. It was a drab off-white structure with no armed guards. A few young men stood inside the reception area that consisted of a table and chair around which they gathered. They looked unkempt. However, they were most polite and within minutes I was ushered in to meet his Excellency, Dr. Khalid el Sheikh. He was a man in position, so his could have been the ‘official’ version.

The Israeli voice:

Moshe Dayan openly declared, “There is not a single Jewish village in this country that has not been built on the site of an Arab village.”

What is the historical perspective? Can the Holocaust be compared to the Palestinian diaspora? Can the Jews become the Nazis in the latter half of the same century and the beginnings of the new one? As Bertrand Russell wrote, “I see in this suggestion no reason to perpetuate suffering. What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy.” Even Einstein, a Jew, rued the terror of Zionism.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 by the British called for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Under the UN resolution of 1947 Palestine was to be divided into Arab and Jewish states, with Israel being granted 57 per cent of the total land when that under their possession did not exceed six per cent, and they constituted only a third of the population. The Palestinians rejected the partition plan. But within six months, 78 per cent of the land had come under the Israelis, exceeding the UN stipulation, dispossessing its inhabitants and replacing them with Jews from Europe and other parts of the world. This is the only country created by the UN defying the UN. In 1967, the West Bank and Gaza were taken over and the inhabitants were under an oppressive military rule. They were treated as refugees.

While the natives whose families lived on this land for thousands of years are not allowed to return, Jews from all over the world are welcome to instant citizenship. Even as peace talks are carried on, settlements come up, armed with the most sophisticated weapons. Negotiations are one-sided – Palestinians can have their municipalities but the borders, water, airspace, and anything else of importance remains an Israeli domain. Such gumption is made possible only because there is an American Israel Public Affairs Committee that can make all the forces of the world powerless against it, including the UN, as the American veto is there to block any condemnation of Israeli war crimes.

Some revered figures committed massacres and later became Prime Ministers. In 1948, Menachem Begin’s unit slaughtered the inhabitants of Deir Yassin. In 1953, Ariel Sharon led the slaughter of the inhabitants of Qibya, and in 1982 arranged for their allies to butcher around 2,000 in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla.

He had once declared, “We must hit, hit and hit them incessantly…not by means of large-scale war. Suddenly someone disappears there, someone is found dead here and somewhere else someone is found stabbed to death in a European nightclub.”

Today, in bigtime political warfare, you do not fight your own battles; the superpowers do it. There have been attempts to even justify the existence of Israel by harking back to Biblical times. But Dr. Khalid el Sheikh had explained to me, “The Jews of today are mostly converts to Judaism and had no racial links with the Israelites or Hebrews who lived in Palestine at or before the time of Christ. This in fact raises the controversy about Judaism being a religion or a race. Since there can be an American, Indian, European or an Arab Jew like in Christianity and Islam, how then these conglomerations of people from different races could form a nation?”


(c) Farzana Versey

25.7.06

The little Prince?

As I switched on the TV on Sunday night and saw the ticker talking about Prince being rescued from a ditch, I began to wonder what the heck was good ole Charlie upto. Or did William fall off a horse? Or was Harry punch drunk? And why was Manmohan Singh sending them blessings?

Or was it one of our Rajasthan type ‘hukooms’?

Or was it a police sniffer dog that was chasing a Tashkar-e-Taiyba terrorist who seem to be so easy to find?

Then I squinted my eyes as I read that the Haryana chief minister had offered Rs. 2 lakh to Prince. All this was breaking news. Later, images were flashed and I got to know that the whole country had been riveted for two days by the ordeal of a five-year-old who had fallen into an open sewer.

He was hailed by commoner and cynic alike as a hero.

I was just glad I wasn’t around to be “glued to the TV”. The Prince episode makes me sick. It has exposed the malaise that besets urban society – boredom.

K. Natwar Singh, our former external affairs minister, dedicated his column in The Asian Age to “A new little hero for India”.


He asks with utter naiveté, “How did a billion Indians adopt him as their own, why did so many perform pujas and collective prayers?” and then proceeds to answer with the even more naïve, “Because we are an emotional and sentimental people”.

Where are our emotions and sentiments when children walk around like zombies with bloated hungry stomachs, who die before they are born, who live in pipes that are not even two-feet wide? Where are our emotions when tribals are displaced, slums are demolished, people killed in cold blood?

He gushes, “What a wonderful, heart-lifting, skillful job the rescue team, the doctors and the administration did.”

Where are the rescue teams when calamities strike, when women are raped, villages plundered?

He further states, “The chief minister of Haryana has given Rs 2 lakh to the boy’s parents. The Prime Minister has announced free medical aid. This is not enough. Also announce that Prince’s education from primary school to university will be met by the government of Haryana.”

Where are our politicians when many such children die due to lack of basic healthcare? Why did Prince get Rs. 2 lakh? If it is compensation for the neglect of the authorities that left the sewer open, then the person responsible ought to be thrown out of his job first. This is a sop and will encourage the powers-that-be to become heroes by default. The prime minister should be sending his blessings to all the impoverished children of India for displaying resilience every single day of their lives.

On what grounds must the Haryana government sponsor the child’s education? Because a CCTV was monitoring him and he survived on biscuits and chocolates?

Why are TV channels being lauded? They want reality? They should park their cameras in villages where some kids run hard and fast hoping to become athletes if only they could afford a pair of shoes. Then let us see how many people pray.

Natwar Singh is extremely insensitive when he says, “The other reason is that this happy ending took our minds away from perpetual doom and gloom, from terror attacks in Mumbai, rape in Ghaziabad, abduction in the Northeast, violence in Somalia and Sudan, American folly in Iraq, an air crash here and a train disaster there, Israeli bombing of Southern Lebanon, Hezbollah retaliating with deadly determination, from a suicide by a girl in a Delhi school to murder in Vasant Vihar, I could go on and on.”

I am quoting from one article by an articulate, apparently intelligent man (never mind that he makes a comment like, “This five-year-old kid obviously has a very strong horoscope and a very strong constitution”), but this obviously seemed to be the mood around.


So, as citizens of the world, must we ignore the gut-wrenching happenings around us? Must we use a personal trauma as ‘time-pass’ and in turn transform an unlikely candidate into a hero?

To call Prince “a role model to millions of children of our beloved India” would mean waiting for every child to fall into a ditch, literal or metaphorical.

18.7.06

The Entrails of a Blast

It isn’t brave; it is numb. Stop counting figures. Mumbai is dead. All it can hear are the sound of the wheels on the railway tracks, the rush of bodies to enter train compartments, the pushing, and the shoving. People die on these tracks all the time. They too are innocent. Women are raped in these trains; they are terrorised.

So, do you still want to define terrorism? Do you want to start blaming again? Do you want some pretence once more?

As one who has lived all my life in Mumbai, I have witnessed the Bombay riots and the following blasts at close quarters. I have been to homes in anorexic lanes where ceilings were open to the sky and walls had gaping holes, as did bullet-ridden bodies. Blood had congealed and so apparently had points of view. Today I do not feel like crying. Not even when I watch scenes of pain and perseverance. For I have realised that we seem to need a crisis to become Calamity Janes and Johns.

The worst honorific that will be bestowed upon the commuters who died in the July 11 blast is ‘martyrs’. They did not die for any cause. They were innocents. Innocents are always killed – during supposedly legitimate wars, by occupying forces sanctioned by the United Nations, by security agencies in encounters, by the establishment, by jail wardens who need to chalk some points and find in undertrials ready targets.

The most ridiculous photograph of Tuesday’s incident showed a bunch of bearded men holding banners that said “The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind Karnataka strongly codemens (sic) the terrorism and killing of innocent people.” Forget the fact that they cannot get their spelling and grammar right (poor little madrassa types – what did you expect, eh?), they looked like a group of defeated people. Why the need to reiterate it? Why have Hindu, Christian and other groups not gone around condemning what to any normal person is a condemnable act? Because they don’t have to.

Why do the Muslims have to? Here is what a Shiv Sena official said a day after the blasts: “Hindus and Muslims walked hand in hand yesterday. When you read a newspaper you always find that a Muslim terrorist is alleged for subversive activity. But these people have shown what brotherhood is.”

Amazing. Two days before these blasts the Shiv Sena goons had gone on a rampage because someone had thrown mud on the statue of their leader’s wife. They burnt buses with civilians in it, they broke things, they disrupted the daily routine of innocents. Would these not qualify as subversive activities? Where is their brotherhood?

A Reuters report stated, “Muslims queued for hours on Wednesday to donate blood to their Hindu neighbours wounded in the Mumbai train bombings, in a show of harmony in a city with a long history of rioting between the two communities.”

Did no Muslim die in the blasts? Are there no wounded Muslims? Donating blood is a humane act and has nothing to do with harmony. These days every little gesture has to get stamped by the ink of high morality.

It is from this high moral ground that Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Navtej Sarna, was appalled by what Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said. The latter was candid: “…If you have these disputes, it enables negative forces in both the countries to blame the other country and exploit the sentiment and one cannot be certain.” Is this not a fact? How does Mr. Sarna conclude from this that, “His remarks appear to suggest that Pakistan will co-operate with India against the scourge of terrorist violence only if the so-called disputes are resolved. Terrorism cannot be tolerated on any ground whatsoever and no cause justifies the murder of innocents.”

Perhaps our officials ought to be asking how mass murders were committed by establishment bodies during the Bombay riots of 1992-93 and the Gujarat riots of 2002. Why were they tolerated? Why are those people still considered valid authorities and hold seats of power?

Regarding the “so-called dispute”, it is a pathetic case of eyes wide shut to ignore Kashmir. If we wish to point fingers at terrorist outfits that are operating from the Valley or training militants there, then there is a connection. If we give publicity to such organisations everytime they take credit for bloodshed, then we are doing exactly what they want us to do.

The idea is not to condone militancy, but to understand it.

They want to make a point, like any group does. It is difficult to define a backlash – sometimes it is an impulsive act, sometimes a well-planned move, sometimes political expediency.

But the moment you try to over-humanise the victims, it becomes a victory for the predators. Mangled bodies, flesh sticking to parts of twisted bogies, blood splattered around do convey reality. But let us not overdo it.

Every single day in some part of our country people are dying of basic lack of food and medicine. No one weeps for them, because the opponent is the System, a system of ennui and corruption. In both cases, terror prevails. The enemy, as always, lies within.

7.7.06

Pyaar ghadee bhar tau hi bohat hai…

I was trying to retrieve a greeting card and discovered at the website little pink hearts floating around. There was much of “I love you” apparently to be expressed. Some were funny, some tender, some poetic. I was tempted to send one to myself.

Self-obsessed? Narcissistic? If truth be told, then yes, a touch of both. But that is at the superficial level.

I feel committed to me, my feelings (and they are for others, so it is quite selfless really), my beliefs (they have to do with something larger than me), my life (for it was given to me, just as it will be taken away from me, without my knowledge, but which I am supposed to embellish if I am to be of any worth).

And then, the only constant in one's life is oneself. As long as I breathe and smile and hurt, I will be there for me. The others are balms, placebos, sores. No one can experience my ecstasy and anguish for me even if they share it, cause it or become a part of it. A part is never a whole.

But...I can say I love you to...

The pigeon going guttargoo near the window sill...

The trees that I may be able to look down at from my higher position in physical terms are taller than I can ever be, in every sense of the term...

The sea, my sea, for those moments when it enveloped me, making me feel like a mermaid...

The sand for letting me leave marks of my feet on them...

The waves for washing those marks away and making me realise that a journey means not looking back...

The teddy, the cat and the dog...stuffed with softness to make me feel like they are for real...

The scent of jasmine in a bottle that I touch upon my pulse points and feel like the flowers are touching me...

The old cuttings of my writings to remind me that words may be torn to shreds by others, but for those who write them they stay forever...

The photographs that tell me where I had been, what I did, and who was there to immortalise those moments...

The knick-knacks, a collection chosen to reveal one's character and gifted to reveal that of others...

The books, the music, the pens...how much they have contributed to my life...

The sketch pencils, the water colours, the rice paper that tell me to get back to doing what I loved so, and those few paintings that make me believe that amateurishness that comes from the heart surpasses technical flourishes...

The scented candles, the unguents that make everything around so sensual...

The sounds from the street that make me aware that there is life beyond my island...

The silences, the darkness that I love and that make me appreciate that small voice and the sliver of light even more...

I love them all.

And people?

Here I am tongue-tied. I cannot say it in this important way. But for those who have felt my presence, got my notes, my phone calls, understood my feelings, been touched in even a minuscule way by what I say, do, feel...I suppose those gestures, that 'giving', has been of some value...as theirs has been to me...


"Kuchh paakar khonaa hai, kuchh khokar paanaa hai
jeevan ka matlab to, aanaa aur jaanaa hai
do pal ke jeevan se, ek umr churaani hai…"

6.7.06

Megha chhaae aadhi raat, bairan ban gayee nindiyaa

Yesterday I was out. I took my mother for her post-op check-up. This wasn’t the bhutta and garam chai kind of rain. It was frightening.

We had to change route four times to get to the hospital. I am not complaining. I cannot. The scenes I saw in the street wouldn’t let me. People were holding on to each other, vehicles were stalled, rows of shops that I always grumbled caused traffic snarls and stared at me with the latest fashion accessories were shut. Above one row the windows had come off the hinges.

For the first time I think I looked at my school with affection! It looked lost – I could see the doors of the classrooms closed. How we would wait for the rains for a holiday to be declared and then make paddle-boats of our shoes before we reached home to the safe cocoon of hot chocolate, warm hugs before our hair was towel dried as every strand whipped our faces wet.

Was such innocence dead?

Yesterday, I was surprised to see it still alive. Groups of young boys soaked to the skin were patrolling the areas to help; a young couple whizzed past on a motorbike till it whirred to a stop… the guy looked behind and she smiled and held him close; urchins waved at everyone as they bathed in the muddy water; as we made our way towards Bandstand, a cop in a yellow raincoat motioned us to turn away.

We went via Mount Mary’s church. The carts with candles were covered with sheets, but some were left open. Faith’s flame could not be doused.

This is a view of the waters before the greater deluge where once there was a street.


Here is Bandstand just before we were stopped.


Mount Mary’s Church with the plastic sheet-covered candle stalls.


These are the downed shutters of shops and in the far right corner a man who has found shelter.



I did not get any vicarious thrill clicking these photographs. Some little kids did in fact give me their practised ‘Canon’ised smiles, but I refrained. I just had the camera in my bag and these are the places where I have walked, driven through, prayed, shopped almost everyday of my life.

I did not want to see people “bounce back”. This is what makes others take us for granted. TV channels invite politicians, cops, bureaucrats, admen, citizen’s initiative types who are not in touch with the ground reality. They talk about how Mumbai pays Rs. 60,000 crore in taxes, but the appalling drainage system (said to be anywhere from 70 to 150 years old) is blamed on encroachments.

The pictures I have shown you, the places I have mentioned are the so-called elite areas of the suburbs. The road where the cop stopped us from entering houses Shahrukh’s, Salman Khan’s and Rekha’s homes.

The encroachments are not only the slums but the illegal buildings. A very fancy atrium structure has come up at the end of the lane where I live; it has caused complete havoc in this once-beautiful stretch. Its silly little waterfall mocks me when it ought to be mocking itself.

I cannot complain. I will not. I saw the municipal guys clearing the garbage, emptying your filth and mine in the trucks despite the downpour. That would have made for a great picture. But it would have taken away their dignity.

These faceless, nameless people may never ask for it. It is the least we can give them.