Monday, March 25, 2013

On why labourers and workers in Gujarat take a fortnight's break for Holi

Pic courtesy: Bell Bajao! (Breakthrough’s Bell Bajao! launched in India in 2008, is a cultural and media campaign that calls on men and boys to take a stand against domestic violence. The campaign seeks to reduce domestic violence and to highlight the role that men and boys can play in reducing violence. Read more here.)

I've often wondered why house, office and factory staff want a fortnight off for Holi, essentially a two-day Hindu festival. According to the book, India Guide Gujarat, "The period surrounding Holi is an important time for Gujarat's tribal communities, many members of which work as laborers in other cities. They leave their job sites and return to their villages to join the ceaseless folk dancing and festivities. Each community celebrates with its own traditions. For example, at the Dhuleti fair in Bhagoria (Chhota Udepur) people walk on hot ash from the previous night's bonfire. In the Teliyo Mela, women massage their husbands with oil and then push them into the local lake to catch fish. The gesture symbolizes their love while the catch doubles as dinner. You can visit villages around Panchmahal, Poshina, Chhota Udepur, Rajpipla and Saputara to experience a variety of Holi celebrations."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

On why seminars on women should also have male participants

I've just come home from a symposium on Women and Leadership conducted jointly by the Women's Studies Research Center of The M S University (MSU) of Baroda and the Federation of Gujarat Industries (FGI). Among the speakers were the MSU Vice Chancellor Prof Yogesh Singh, Geeta Goradia, FGI President, Rashmi Bansal who had authored the book Stay Hungry Stay Foolish, Shagufa Kapadia and Uma Joshi of the Faculty of Family and Community Sciences, MSU. They spoke of women who have climbed the corporate ladder and others who have become successful entrepreneurs. They talked about how women are good at multi-tasking and why glass ceilings should not exist. I looked around. The auditorium was packed with women. The speakers, except the Vice Chancellor, were all women. Some even applauded “the few brave men” who had come to the symposium. It's strange how most seminars and symposia on women, women's studies and women's businesses have mainly women participants, invitees and speakers. It may be because the men do not want to come but it may also be because the organisers of such events target only women. Why not have a guy come up and talk about women leaders? Why not invite colleges with a male majority (engineering institutes, for example) to such events? Isn't the point of discussing gender on a public platform is to reduce the gap between men and women and their mindsets? It came as a shock to me when one of the women speakers referred to the Delhi rape as the “Delhi violence incident”. What is the point of discussing women and leadership in public, if you can't call rape, rape, that too in front of a largely female audience? I was disappointed, because what promised to be a set of motivational lectures turned into just some advice about how men should deal with women and women should deal with their problems.   

Friday, March 22, 2013

Proud moment: A mention on the work done by UNICEF Gujarat

This 31 March 2013, the first major deadline of the RTE represents an important milestone in implementation.  It is an important moment to take stock on what progress has been made as well as the gaps and bottlenecks for effective implementation.  This plan intends to create awareness and noise around the issue so that this landmark legislation is implemented with a much greater sense of urgency. The latest video on UNICEF India Facebook and Youtube features Ms. Urmila Sarkar's interview [with a special mention of Gujarat on how ECE has been integrated as part of the state RTE plans]. Here's the link to the video: 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Of how history keeps repeating itself in Afghanistan

Book: Return of a King — The Battle for Afghanistan
Author: William Dalrymple
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 567
Price: Rs 607 on Flipkart

"It is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan," wrote  the 19th century Afghan writer Mirza 'Ata (who has been described by Dalrymple in an interview as "extremely urbane and witty observer"). As NATO troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, my favourite author, William Dalrymple, has come up with Return of a King, a powerful reminder of how history repeats itself, over and over, in that country. What I love about his books is the way Dalrymple bridges the past and the present through the footnotes and his anecdotes. Here are some examples from Return of a King, which is based on the events that led to the catastrophic First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42):

"The Shikarpuri Sindhi money-lending community had long specialised in financing wars and dealing in arms, and the tradition continues to this day: the most notable Shikarpuris in this business today are the Hinduja brothers, who, among many other such deals, were allegedly involved in the controversial sale of the Bofors guns to Rajiv Gandhi's government in the 1980s."

"It is a book written by James Burnes, A Sketch of the History of the Knight's Templars (1840), that first links the Freemasons to the Templars and Roslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. It is the ultimate progenitor of a wash of popular nonsense like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code."

"The same title (Amir al-Muminin or the Commander of the Faithful) was later taken by Mullah Omar of the Taliban who in 1996 looked explicitly to the example of Dost Mohammad (who had awarded himself the title in February 1835 before called for battle to liberate Peshawar, the Afghan winter capital, from Sikh control) for inspiration for the founding of the Taliban Islamic Amirate of Afghanistan."

"This (The question Mehrab Khan of Qalat asked Scottish agent Alexander Burnes (1805-41) was: 'You have brought an army into the country, but how do you propose to take it out again?') has become a famous line and is widely remembered even today. In 2003, it was repeated to me (Dalrymple) by Javed Paracha, a wily Pashtun lawyer who has successfully defended al-Qaeda suspects in the Peshawar High Court. In his fortress-like stronghouse in Kohat, deep in the lawless tribal belt that acts as a buffer between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Paracha had sheltered wounded Taliban fighters — and their frost-bitten women and children —fleeing across the mountains from the American daisy-cutters at Tora Bora, and was twice imprisoned in the notorious prison at Dera Ismail Khan. There he was kept in solitary while being questioned — and he alleges tortured — by CIA interrogators. Despite seeing at close quarters what modern western weaponry was capable of, he knew his history, and never believed NATO would succeed in its occupation of Afghanistan. When I (Dalrymple) went to interview him in Kohat soon after installation of President Karzai he quoted Mehrab Khan's line to me as evidence of the futility of the attempt to install another Popalzai (Durrani Pashtuns) in power."

The last survivors of Her Majesty's 44th Foot at Gandamak. Pic courtesy:  Southern Cross Review
"... the Dasht which stretches from Spin Boldak at the foot of the mountains south of Kandahar is now a virtual desert with only a little spring grazing and the dwarf oaks confined to the mountain slopes. But the descriptions left by members of the Army of the Indus reveal a greener landscape as do the place names: Chaman, the present-day border post between Pakistan and Afghanistan in these parts, means 'meadow' in Persian."

"The arrival of the US-led coalition in Kabul in 2002 had a similar effect (to that in 1841 when the sudden flood of silver rupees and letters of credit into the country after the advent of British troops resulted in an increase of prices of some basic products by 500 per cent), leading in a few months to a ten-fold hike in house prices." 

"The same tactics (the destruction of the vineyards and cutting deep rings around trees of two centuries' growth by the Army of Retribution) were used by the Taliban against the orchards and vineyards of the Shomali Plain when they finally lost patience with the mainly Tajik villages of Parwan in the 1990s."

"On my (Dalrymple's) extended visits to Afghanistan to research this book in 2009 and 2010, I set myself two goals. Firstly, I wanted to try to find the elusive Afghan sources telling of the war which I was certain had to exist and which I have in due course used to write this book. Secondly, I was keen to see as many of the places and landscapes associated with the First Afghan War as was possible in a situation where ISAF's (International Security Assistance Force) hold on Afghanistan was already visibly shrinking everyday. By 2010, the Taliban had a strong presence in over 70 per cent of the country and Karzai's government had firm control of only twenty-nine out of 121 key strategic districts. That 70 per cent included most of the route of the British retreat of January 1842 which I knew I would have to travel if I was to have an idea of the geography I was going to write about."

"For the Afghans the war changed their state for ever: on his return. Dost Mohammad inherited the reforms made by the British and these helped him consolidate an Afghanistan that was much more clearly defined than it was before the war. Indeed Shuja and most of his contemporaries had never used the word 'Afghanistan' — for him, there was a Kingdom of Kabul which was the last surviving fragment of the Durrani Empire and which lay on the edge of a geographical space he described as Khurasan. Yet within a generation the phrase Afghanistan existed widely on maps both within and outside the country and people within that space were beginning to describe themselves as Afghans."

* The words in the brackets are mine, to elucidate the context of the note.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The making of a hero

Film: Arjun – The Warrior Prince
Director: Arnab Chaudhuri
Producers: Ronnie Screwvala and Siddharth Roy Kapur
Music: Vishal and Shekhar
Animation Production: Tata Elxsi
DVD price: Rs 115

While most versions of the Mahabharata's screen or stage adaptations tend to focus on how great an archer Arjun was, this film tells you about how a very talented young boy was thrown into a world of deceit and betrayal and went on to become the most powerful warrior of his time. The best part about the film are its characters. In a nation, where B R Chopra's version of Mahabharata is etched into the minds of its people, it would have been quite a difficult task to sketch characters that look different and are still accepted by the audience. Kudos to the team for doing just that! The other high point of the movie is its music. Vishal and Shekhar have come up with a track that's refreshing, upbeat and very, very Indian. The songs introduce characters and take the story forward, something mainstream Bollywood has failed to do, yet. So if you're into animated films or cartoons, Walt Disney and UTV's Arjun – The Warrior Prince could be your DVD pick this week.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

What makes people dance in a baraat in Gujarat?

Pic courtesy: Exotic India Art

I have balked at the idea of people dancing in the middle of a busy street in a baraat (a wedding procession). And much to my discomfort, I have been asked to/forced to participate in many of them since I moved to Gujarat in 2008. In Gujarat, weddings are very big affairs. The ceremonies are conducted through a week (or more) and even the henna-applying ceremony, the Mehendi, could have around 200 invitees. While in most cultures, the wedding card is only a card that gives you the date and time of the event, in Gujarat, you have the wedding booklet (the kankotri), which will tell you about the Mehendi, Mandwa (a puja at the groom's house), Garba/Sangeet (traditional dance), Hast Milap (the wedding itself), Pirsamani (where the bride serves food to the members of the groom's family) and Reception. The words may be different for different castes but basically the invites list separate events and their venues for the different days. So if you are family or close to the family, you'll get a booklet that contains all the information. If you are acquainted with the family, you'll get invited only to the wedding and the reception. And, if you just know one of the members, you'll be invited only to the reception. The number of leaves in your booklet define how important you are to the family. Courtesy demands that if you get an invite and are in town, you must show up. If you don't, your absence is "noted", not just by the host family but by the others who are present. If you are family, you'd better dance in the baraat. No one will ask you to. You just have to. "It's all about the hoens (the 'n' is like the 'n' in saans in Hindi)," says a friend. The closest equivalent to hoens in Hindi is josh. It's a raw mix of excitement and enthusiasm, that gives you a high so much so that you forget your inhibitions and take to all kinds of celebrations. Hoens in the dry state of Gujarat works like alcohol does in Punjab. "It's what makes 85 kg women do the 'ghoda kudvana' (literally, jump like horses) and it comes from participating in many weddings over a long period of time," says a friend. Maybe someday, I shall get the hoens too!