Tuesday, November 29, 2011

One cold December night...

One cold December night in 2009, I woke up in the middle of a forest in Dang in south Gujarat at 4 am. My roommates, who were then my students, were fast asleep, tucked in many layers of cloth. It took me a while to leave my warm bed. It must have been some 4°C. I walked out of the tent. It was quiet. No crickets. I looked up... to find only a crescent of the moon. I walked towards the remnants of the bonfire we had the night before. And then I did the unthinkable. I stood on top of the glowing embers. Of course, I had my shoes on. But still! I am scared of fire. I think twice before lighting a match. But I stood there. I looked around to see if there were any other early-risers. Ravi, my 48-year-old student was an armyman on study-leave. Soon, he would be out for a walk. I had little time. I stayed put and looked up. My ears were alert, as they tried to pick up the slightest sound - of students snoring, of leaves rustling, of the burnt twigs that were being crushed under my feet. I turned my cold face to the darkest part of the forest. And with that, I confronted my worst nightmare - that I would be all alone in the middle of a dense dark forest and would slowly be engulfed by it. And sure I was. The forest grew on me. I was scared. The line between imagination and reality was blurred. But I stood... for a full 15 minutes, before Ravi came out for a walk. I did that everyday. And I was in Dang for a week. It gave me an adrenaline rush - something people experience while bungee jumping. I wrote many pieces on Dang after that, many travelogues that were interesting and well-appreciated. There were many experiences we had had as a group. But the memory that I cherish most is that of the cold December night when I stood with fire in the middle of darkness to face fear, all by myself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Headhunting in Borneo

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 02:34:16 PM

Iban skulls at a Bidayuh longhouse 

“And there, up there, above the rest of the people, is where the witch-doctor or shaman stays.” We look in the direction Reno’s finger points to. Our guide-cum-driver then excitedly climbs up the rickety bamboo-and-wood staircase. We gingerly follow him into a dark room. It’s empty. Reno moves to the centre of the room and points to a cage. We had expected some treasure — old herbs, antimony, gold dust, anything. But, skulls? Human skulls!

Reno smiles triumphantly. This is what most tourists, mainly from Australia and mainland Malaysia, come to the Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse for; this and the Annah Rais hot-spring in the hills nearby. We take a closer look at the skulls, the cage and the new stainless steel lock that keeps the contents ‘safe’. “These were Iban warriors,” Reno reveals.

In Malaysia's largest state, Sarawak, the Dayak Ibans comprise nearly 34 per cent of the population. While the Ibans today are a generous, hospitable and placid people, the tribe has a long history as pirates and fishermen. The fierce warriors were reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo.
Reno says, “The Ibans and Bidayuh's are historical enemies. The Bidayuhs were the first tribe to come to Sarawak in 1380 from Kalimantan in south Borneo (which is now part of Indonesia). They were peace-loving people and settled here into agrarian communities and built their longhouses. The Ibans followed them. They would always look out for a fight with the Bidayuhs and raid the latter’s villages.” It would inevitably result in war. Men on both sides would be killed and their heads would be taken by their enemies as trophies. The women and children of the ‘enemy tribe’ were taken as slaves.

Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse
The victorious warriors would bring the heads to the shaman. The skulls would be carved out and engraved on and then washed with coconut water. The coconut water was believed to be potent and would be passed around to the warriors, for them to drink. It would then be distributed to the villagers, who would sprinkle it into the ground before they started sowing the seeds for the next season's crops.

A 73-year-old (even I couldn't believe that she was that old) Bidayuh woman making a basket. The traditional  rattan weed is slowly giving way to more durable but ecologically harmful plastic. Besides baskets and cloth, the Bidayuh are also known for their wood-bark products such as purses and mobile phone covers

We step out of the shaman’s house into the common space that makes the communal space of the stitled, windowless, longhouse, which is not unlike the long corridor of a chawl in Dadar in Mumbai. Life seems normal here. The women weave the rattan (Java weed) mats and baskets that the Bidayuh’s are famous for. Others wash tapioca roots and leave the leaves to dry in the sun. These will be later used to flavour rice which will be cooked in bamboo over a woodfire. Cats and the Kampung (village) children lay sprawled across the bamboo flooring. We pick up strains of Hindi film music that is playing on a TV channel.  A middle-aged woman offers us a glass of tuak or rice wine (RM 20 for a bottle) while Reno chats her up. She talks freely because he belongs to her tribe.

Cocoa in their backyard!
The practice of headhunting is banned by the three countries which govern Borneo – Indonesia, the Kingdom of Brunei and Malaysia. Relics, in the forms of bones and exquisitely carved human skulls are found in museums such as the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore and in antique shops all across South East Asia. The Ibans and the Bidayuhs have ‘settled down’ into other occupations. Reno notes that the inherent aggressive streak the Ibans have, has turned some of them into Sarawak's most successful businessmen. The Bidayuhs, on the other hand, take up jobs as professionals or in the government service. Most of the tribes in Sarawak now follow Christianity. But, the shamans still exist and so do their beliefs in the powers the skulls possess.

Getting there: The Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse is a 1.5 hour-drive away from Sarawak's capital, Kuching. Taxis and shuttles are available from outside the Grand Margherita Hotel and may cost you about RM 150 (1RM = INR 15 approx) per head. Buses are cheaper but difficult to come by. Kuching is well-connected by air to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Review: Poverty to Empowerment

Author: Indira Dutta
Publisher: Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd
Pages: 149
Price: Rs 485

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 12:49:18 PM 
When the Planning Commission pegged the poverty in India’s urban areas at Rs 32 per capita per day, it drew flak from several quarters, including members of the civil society and social activists who termed it as a “cruel joke”. That India’s millions still live in a state of abject poverty, in spite of being ‘part’ of the second-fastest growing economy in the world, is a well-known fact. But to determine how poor the poor really are and what can be done to make them less poor, is something that has baffled even some of the world’s best economists.  

In her book, Poverty to Empowerment, academician Indira Dutta takes you through the various causes of poverty in India, how it has been measured over the years and the steps various successive governments have taken to alleviate poverty. She analyses various growth theories of spatial planning which have been propounded by various economists and scholars from time to time. Dutta has devoted many pages in the book to the objectives of various poverty alleviation programmes that have been initiated by the Indian government such as Drought Prone Areas Programme, Integrated Rural Development Programme, National Rural Employment Programme, Valmiki Ambedkar Awas Yojana, Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Bharat Nirman and even Aadhar

The author does well to establish the link between Hinduism and poverty and gender and poverty and describe the convergence of urban and rural poverty. In order to break the monotony of text, she has included tables of quantitative data to make it easier for the reader to comprehend, correlate and conclude. However, it is her generalised conclusion, “India has faced deep rooted social and economic inequities for centuries. We cannot blindly follow the capitalistic model of economic growth that puts reliance on market forces. The actors of development — state, market and civil society, all have to work together to bring a synergetic solution to developmental problem,” that comes as a disappointment.

If you're looking for stories about the wretchedness of India’s poor, which will tug at your heart-strings, this book is not for you. It is only a step towards understanding why poverty in India hasn’t substantially gone down with its increase in economic growth. While Dutta tries hard to make a complex subject simple, she tends to oversimplify in many cases and risks being superficial. She also presumes that the reader would be familiar with the theories of scholars such as Water Christaller, Johann Heinrich von Thünen, F Perroux, J R Boudeville and Auguste Lösch, and does not explain their backgrounds when she cites them. If you do not know much about economics, it can put you off, that is, if you are not already done in by the poor editing. 

However, if you’re a student of economics or someone who wants to know the simple facts about the complex issue called poverty, Poverty to Empowerment may well work for you.