LOVING INDIA-9 Never Say Goodbye.


I am at home in Auckland typing on my own keyboard. I am glad to be home. I was sad to leave home. One is my matrubhoomi, motherland. The other is my karmabhoomi, the land that is shaping my destiny. Home is where the heart is?

Home is where you know the sequence of the electrical switches. The first and last for plugs, the second one for the fan and the third for the light. The same in all rooms of the house. Home is where your mother stores her stock of detergent soaps in the same place for as long as you remember. The bottom shelf of that wooden cupboard in the hallway near the bathroom. Home is when I walked through the labyrinthine maze of Khotachiwadi, Girgaum, Mumbai. The old bungalows, Ideal Wafer Company, narrow lanes still same-to-same. Home. The bus routes, bhel-puri at Chowpatty beach, sizzlers at Kobe, hawkers in the ladies’ compartment of the local train selling bindis, combs and hair clips. Some of the local trains are now painted an appalling McDonald orange (or red?). Nine to twelve carriages advertising fast food that is meant to be aspirational but which very few Indians can afford. They still go from Churchgate to Virar though. Home.

The domestic airports have to deal with air traffic. Air traffic! Indians are travelling their country like never before. Train bookings were always tough to get. Now three-three flights fly to and from one destination at the same time. Budget airlines on which you have to rush to ‘catch’ a seat and buy chana-singdana, peanuts, for Rs 20. And there is that benchmark in local luxury, Kingfisher Airlines (so I’ve been told). The sour-faced service at Indian Airlines continues. Home.

A group of villagers from a remote area in Maharashtra flew all the way to Delhi to meet their representative member of Parliament. He asked the women if they had flown before. This is the first time they had been out of their village, they said.

Waiting for her flight to wherever, while I waited for my flight to Delhi from Bombay, a matron munched on bakarwadi, a savoury. Her trolley was packed with her boriya-bistara, all possible worldy belongings. Like she was taking the Geetanjali Express from VT, Bombay to Howrah, Calcutta. Aap ko bhook lagi hai, are you hungry, she asked another women sitting next to her. Mere pass bahut khane ko hai, I have lots of food with me. Home.

That orgasmic middle-class utopia at Phoenix Mill compound continues to flourish. The chawls, where many of those textile mill workers who lost their jobs in the infamous strike during the 1980s continue to live, are rundown and probably spawning new blood for the Mumbai mafia. I had lunch with my school friends and ate tandoori prawns at Gajalee in Phoenix Mill compound. With my jholawala (socialist/bleeding heart) attitude intact. Home.

Then I flew home. The garden is overgrown with weeds. The chillies are a bright red and I will put them out on the footpath tomorrow for passers-by to pick up. For free. Home. One more week for daylight savings time to end. I might go for a dip in the ocean and am looking forward to my weekend walks in the bush. Home. I have to be overtly PC most of the time yet can send of emails to WINZ where I can call an officer obtuse and pedantic. πŸ™‚ Home. I can do any kind of work and not be looked-down-upon. And I don’t have to keep up middle-class appearances. Home.

Bombay is home. Auckland is my space. Can’t ever say goodbye to either.

LOVING INDIA-8 Me, Just Marathi?


Some nights ago, on our way home after dinner, my friend was stopped by the Mumbai Police at a check naka. The Mumbai Police has become very strict with drink driving and metes out the treatment on weekend nights to Bombayites. Anyway, my friend had had a couple. He was not drunk but did not want to lose his licence. A constable asked him to get out of the car and show his licence. Have you had any alcohol, he asked. My friend got out of the car, fished out the driver’s licence and spoke to the policeman. In Marathi. How are you today, he smiled. The constable was pleasantly shocked. A Marathi man! I am fine, he said. And examined the little piece of cardpaper that is the driver’s licence in Maharashtra. Come watch my play, requested my friend. Conversationally. The policeman scrutinised him. Oh, you produced that Marathi play, he said. An acquaintance saw it and liked it. I would love to see it. Of course, said my friend. And the conversation ended with my friend noting down the policeman’s name and phone number. We were stopped twice that Friday night. Both times my friend ensured he had new audience and the driving licence was intact. Only because he was a ‘local’ talking to a ‘local’.

Years ago when a patient was stalking me I made a police complaint. A ‘local’ talking to them in their language.

So far so good. Being a local has its advantages. Like the system is skewed towards the Pakeha (Europeans) in New Zealand. It is an ‘inherent advantage’ for some people. Then what? Keep out the migrants and let society, the economy and local culture rot?

Raj Thakeray, the man-who-almost-became-kingmaker-before-he-was-ousted-by-his-cousin, Uddhav, son of Bal Thakeray, wants the bhaiyyas and the Biharis out of Bombay. They are the problem, he proclaimed. Just like the ‘Asians’ are a problem in New Zealand. (Before that it was the Pacific Islanders.)

So is it only locals that make a society? Is it only the Marathi person that has made Bombay/Mumbai a cosmopolitan city? Is it only the Europeans that made New Zealand?

Politicians harp on about migration issues, pressure on resources and anything that is a problem. If there were no bhaiyyas who would deliver milk early in the morning to all the households in Bombay? Who would make the furniture? If there were no businessmen from Gujarat/Rajasthan where ever would the Bombay Stock Exchange even exist? What about the film industry here? If the Punjabis had not come, broke and emotionally torn by Partition, who would have made the films? (Never mind that Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema was a Maharashtrian man.) If the Chinese had not mined gold in Otago would the local economy and hence that of New Zealand have flourished? Or if the Croatians had not dug gum/the Indians had not cut scrub etc etc. Know what I mean?

My friend, who avoided being ‘caught’ is close to the upper hierarchy in the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Our local, right-wing, belligerent, parochial political parties in Bombay. But he too gets uncomfortable when talk of ‘Mumbai for the Marathis’ comes up. Because he knows. It is an obsolete, regressive concept. If Mumbai had been built only by the locals/Maharashtrians it would not be the city it is today. One only has to visit the top floor of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla to see how this city was built.

Auckland may have been named after Lord Auckland who was Governer-General of India (and lead a disastrous foray into Afghanistan in the 1850s) so what? It projects itself as a global city but has proposed budget cuts in the area of migrants and refugees. The irony is that the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance wants to hear from ‘ethnic’ communities. Some questions to start discussion, according to an email sent out by The Office of Ethnic Affairs, are:

Do councils respond to the needs of ethnic communities?

Are ethnic communities able to access council services?

πŸ˜€
The Indian constitution deems that India is for all Indians. They can live anywhere they like in this country. So Maharashtrians can go anywhere they like. Why haven’t they? Afraid of hard work and sweat? Or discrimination? Or to fight for what is right but in a proper, civil way?

What is the meaning of being a New Zealander/an Aucklander? Just hyphenated words? Yeah, I am a female-Hindu-Brahmin-Maharashtrian-Bombayite-Indian-Aucklander-New Zealander….or a transnational, transcultural citizen of the world who would like to contribute positively to whichever country I work/live in?

Yesterday was the beginning of a long weekend in India. Eid-e-Milad, Navroze, Holi and Easter. Four festivals in four days. Three of which could be ‘Marathi’, irrespective of religion. Yet the Parsis also built Bombay no?

As I count my days to return to New Zealand I have reaffirmed one thing. I know where I come from so I can go anywhere I want. And that is more than being Just Marathi.

LOVING INDIA-7 Cricket, the media and stuff


Word on the street is that Harbhajan said Maa ki (Your Mother’s @@##) to Andrew Symonds. The Australians, poor things, being monocultural and monolingual thought he said Monkey! This controversy is not going to end. The ‘white’ cricket boards are now worried about Indian dominance and the Indians are loving it. It is not so much about cricket as much about about occupying space on the world stage as a power to reckon with. India won the CB Cup, as Sachin Tendulkar had predicted, in the first two matches. There were the usual firecrackers and the welcomes. There was also money for the cricketers. Rs 59 lacs (?) each. And Bhajji making statements like ‘I am confident, not arrogant’. This is a new era in cricket for India. Young boys want to be the soldiers for the nation in this war. Parents are saying to their kids, ‘Beta, forget your maths tables, go for net practice. Nahi to you will not get rich’.

Star News/Star Cricket of the Star stable owned by Rupert Murdoch takes the lead in stoking these subconscious fires of ambition. ‘And you thought we were wusses?’ said one reporter in Hindi. ‘Look at us now, we have shown you Andrew Symonds/Ricky Ponting etc. Watch out how you treat us coz we can give as good as we get. We are Indians…’ And so on it went; on and on, intercut with visuals of the team popping champagne, arguing players, Symonds and Bhajji standoff, a grim Ricky Ponting, batsmen making classic strokes, cricketers doing duty free shopping and the felicitation by the cricket board. Be combative, aggressive and arrogant in victory, said the subtext. Oh and the Chak De India song ( the title song from the movie Chak De India) playing in the background. These days most ‘news’ channels play Hindi film songs in the background while ‘reporting’ news. Star’s Marathi channel Star Mazhaa contrasted this with a story about a failed cricketer who is now a labourer on a building construction site. So win or lose it still makes a great story on Star.

India also won the under-19 world cup and a lot of money was paid out to players in the second round of auctions for the Indian Premier League cricket. Team anthems, team music videos and what not are the mantra now. If the Australians and the Indians play together in the same team then there might be place for understanding each other, so say the cricketers. Ishant Sharma still thinks highly of Ricky Ponting. Dravid personally called Martin Crowe and asked him to coach his Bangalore team (owned by Vijay Mallya).

I don’t know about better understanding between the Australians and Indians but I sure hope the New Zealand cricketers playing IPL can create more awareness about India in Aotearoa. At least Martin Crowe will not complain about bad Chinese food and the lack of fush-n-chups in Bangalore. Cricketers might do a better job than journalists or government officials? We have to wait and see.

LOVING INDIA-6 Konkan


Yesterday I sat in an internet cafe and tried to write a new post fior this blog. A cafe brimming with prepubescent and adolescent boys playing violent computer games and shouting profanities. I thought I should be zen and let myself experience this part of the social (cultural?) evolution hitting India. Either I am getting old or these boys need a life. My ear drums shattered, my concentration blown in the hot room, I gave up, went home and watched a mind-numbing Marathi soap on telly with my mother.

For those uninitiated in the diversity of India (or those who know only the Punjabis and Gujaratis), the Konkan is a strip along the west coast of India that extends from south Maharashtra through Goa into Karnataka. The language, food, customs, castes and communities are different though. We Samants are the fish eating brahmins from the Konkan in Maharashtra. (And not all of this community have the surname Samant…)

I remember snatches of my visits with my grandparents, parents and family friends to the Konkan as a child. Post cards and inland letters went back and forth confirming dates and times with our hosts and with the poojari (priest) for abhishek (a ritual in which the gods are bathed in milk/water). We left at 4 a.m. for the eight to ten hour drive with farsan, biscuits, bottles of water and tiffins packed with puri-bhaji. Through the Sahyadri mountains, past obscure villages and on potholed roads under the May sun. All precautions taken to avoid any kind of break down. This was before the Konkan Railway or any decent form of transport. The Konkan has (is) an underdeveloped and isolated region of Maharashtra. The people are mostly poor.

My great grandfather migrated from Bondyal Gaon (main village Tendoli, district Sindhudurg) to Bombay. All his progeny now live in and around Bombay. My grandfather was born in Bombay. We have no relatives in Tendoli, no land; no house. But my grandparents visited and my parents visit every two years to pay obeisance to the gods. The kul daivat, devi and gram daivat. (The family gods and village deity.)

This time we took the Jan Shatabdi Express from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (VT). My native tongue is Malwani, a dialect of Marathi. I cannot speak the dialect but I understand it very well. It is full of ‘terms of endearment’ spoken without rancour and consequently very funny and witty. So we were entertained through the train ride by the gappa-goshti (gossip) of our fellow passengers as went went across the landscape alternating between arid stretches and lush, pastoral green. The mango trees were laden with mohur, the mango blossom and pink bougainvillea splayed colour all over. The red soil of the Konkan produces cashewnuts, coconuts and mangoes.

During my earlier visits we stayed at Vengurla or out of the way places like Bhogwa. This time it was Kudal. From there we travelled. One day to see Sindhudurg qilla, the fort that Shivaji built on an island off Malwan port. Then to Tarkarli beach of virgin, white sands. Not a lot of Indians know about the Konkan in Maharashtra. At least not tourists. It is not a popular locale for films either although my mother remembers Dev Anand, the Indian actor/director/producer shooting his film JAAL at Malwan port. (My mother was born in Malwan town.) Once upon a time gold was smuggled into the port now it is RDX for bomb blasts πŸ˜€

The next day, Mahashivratri, we visited the gods in the morning. Our kul daivat is Shiva so my mother was mighty pleased at the co-incidence. That evening we went to the big Mahashivratri jatra in Nerur village. I enjoy village fairs. The Ferris Wheel, merry-go-round, stalls selling fake jewellery, cheap clothes, local produce, plastic toys…I bought glass bangles and a plastic flower for my hair. We ate hot bhajiya and drank hot chai. Some things always stay the same.

It was interesting to see how the jatra is used as a tool by political parties. Narayan Rane, once Chief Minister of Maharashtra in the Shiv Sena-BJP government is a Malwan man. He hopped parties, is now with the Congress and is prominently displayed on hoardings. Yet the Konkan was (is?) predominantly a Shiv Sena domain. So there were Sena hoardings and flags. Raj Thakeray broke away from the Shiv Sena to form the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The MNS flag was all over the place too. All adding to the flavour.

I was entertained, reconnected to my memories and my ancestry, had the best Malwani food ever, the best fish in ages, lots of kokum kadhi (the Kokum is a fruit found in the region) and the first mangoes of the season. I let myself wallow in the charm of the red soil of the Konkan. Then we came back to Bombay.

I have finally written this post in peace. Now I think maybe those boys in the cafe do have a life? Maybe they will play cricket for India? Then Star Sports can showcase them as the new soldiers of the country?

LOVING INDIA-5 Varanasi


My eyes are watering and my nose is watering. I have an allergic reaction to the dust in Varanasi. πŸ™‚

On my way from the airport to the city I asked the taxi driver if Mayawati (Chief Minister, Uttar Pradesh. a.k.a. Behenji, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party-BSP) had made any positive changes to Varanasi. Abhi to bahut gandagi nikali hai, he said. She has cleaned up a lot of the garbage. Mayawati is an interesting character. Autoctratic, despotic, crass or an effective politician? Depends upon your p-o-v. From mine I could see a lot of rubbish on the streets. If that is called ‘cleaned-up’ then it must have been worse before. That was my first impression of Varanasi. This is a historic, heritage city. A major tourist town, an important army base during the British Raj and generally the centre of the universe for all Hindus. Governments have come and gone, parties with varying ideologies have ruled Uttar Pradesh, why then has no one bothered to make Varanasi a better place? As an Indian I was livid at the chaos, the dust and the dirt. There was a shopping mall and SUVs but a complete lack of civic sense. And if the governments have not bothered to clear the mess then what are the people doing?

Varanasi is an intensely political place. All Indians have an opinion on everything. The citizens of Varanasi seemed even more opinionated and passionate. Ask the boatmen that navigate the Ganga every day. A bunch of them were repairing a 100 year old boat. Very skillfully hammering in nails and measuring with some ancient looking (or makeshift?) instruments. They looked like they were one with the ghats and the atmosphere of Kashi. They knew their Mother (Ganga) was dirty and they tried their best to look after her but it was not enough.

I asked my taxi driver about the riots. To those of us who live away from Uttar Pradesh Varanasi is the epicentre for Hindu-Muslim riots. Yet the last riot in Varanasi happened after the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992. There was the bomb blast at the Shankar Mochan temple but no riot. Why? Because the people of the city rallied together to prevent politicians from exploiting the situation. Then why not the cleaning of the Ganga or paving the streets with tar? Or is it that way for Western tourists to feel spiritual within the s$%^t?

Yet I will go back again and again. I pray for the day Kashi is clean and beautiful. I pray for the day the Ganga is restored her divine water; for her devotees to realise that she is not to be abused. This lifestream that flows from the Himalayas. My first view of the Ganga left me breathless. Calm, serene and majestic. She flowed on and on as far as my eye could see. From the balcony of my guest house on Meer Ghat. As I walked that evening from Meer towards Assi Ghat I could feel her vibes. The patience of a loving mother indulging in her silly children who only take and don’t give. No wonder she shows her wrath in the monsoons. The politicians don’t feel it though. They are safe in their bungalows preaching ‘Hinduism’.

There are many things I could have done that first night in Varanasi. But the main thing for me was to pay homage to the presiding deity of Kashi. I went to the Vishwanath Mandir and stayed back for the last aarti of the night. When Lord Shiva is put to bed. The temple shares space with the Gyaanvyapi Masjid that Aurangzeb built. So of course it is a controversial place. No electronics, no nothing. You have to pass through very tight security with the female guards groping every body part. Just like entering Parliament House but then that is the Government of India this is GOD. πŸ˜‰ I am not a temple person. It is hard for me to go in and ‘pray’ in any particular place when the entire universe is a sacred to me. Human behaviour intrigues me though. Especially frenzied devotees. So I went in with the usual paraphernalia of flowers and milk etc. I stood in a line to see God and I bowed to him. I am grateful for all that I have. As I came out of the sanctum sanctorum the priest put a tilak (dot) on my forehead. Whisper your name and iccha (wish) in Nandi’s (Lord Shiva’s vehicle) ear he said. I replied that I had nothing to ask of God. He has given me everything. So, he said, can I have my dakshina (donation) then? Kaheka dakshina, I asked. Dakshina for what? For the tilak, he said. Temples are commerce, a business. Money grabbing brahmins fooling innocent devotees and making moolah. Does a person really need an ‘agent’ to communicate with God? What is it that Nandi will do that a direct application to Lord Shiva won’t? No wonder religion is so important to maintain power equations across the world. I have decided that I shall declare myself enlightened in a couple of years, shave my head, don saffron and dole out pearls of wisdom to the world. At least I shall make a lot money and travel in comfort! And think of the perks!

Varanasi is a place that evokes many emotions. Love it, get angry about the infrastructure, curse the politicians and then take walk along the ghats. The mad human activity will calm you and fascinate you. The temples, the mosques, aartis and azaans, co-existence, inter- dependence, Banarasi silks, the classical Hindustani music that floats through the air, spaced-out Western toursits in search of moksha, academics from Banares Hindu University looking for tomes at Harmony Books, Lebanese restaurant owners, louts, young kids coming up and saying ‘Hello Maydum’, the heritage structures, the business of death and many more things happening at one place all together is like a microcosm of existence. Varanasi is highly recommended and I am ever so grateful to Rebecca for pushing me to visit.

I took a ride on a cycle rickshaw from Assi to Dashashwamedh Ghat at night through the traffic and potholes. It was as exciting as the yak ride I once took on Chhangu lake in Sikkim. I latched on to the closest ‘holdable’ thing for fear of slipping. These are my little delights in life.

There are more to come in this trip. Tomorrow I take the Konkan Railway to my ancestral village. A long overdue visit to the Konkan along with my parents. I don’t know if there is access to the internet from the region. So I don’t know when I will write my next blog.

(I have lots of photos but will put them out only when I have figured out a way to give them an order.)

LOVING INDIA-4 In the heart of democracy.


Back to Bombay from Delhi. What a whirlwind trip! I stayed in Varanasi for a night. It is an addictive place. I will go again and again and take some friends. More about that in my next blog though. I know some of you are eager for me to share my experience about Kashi but this blog is about an absolutely rivetting experience in the heart of democracy.

It is not easy to govern a country like India. So complex so layered and so crazy. Historian Ramchandra Guha compares it to the European Union except that there are more languages and more people than EU. And it is a young democracy that is daily negotiating its identity and place in ‘glocally’. So how do elected representatives look after the people and make sense of it all?

One night in Delhi I was a fly on the wall during an interesting meeting of elected members of Parliament (Lok Sabha members), nominated members of Parliament (Rajya Sabha members), journalists, social workers, government officials and celebrities. They all wanted to bring to the attention of modern India the burning issue of malnutrition. One in in every two children in India is malnourished. It is a complex issue (as is everything in India) but what fascinated me was the camaraderie between opposing parties and the fact that this was a voluntary group cutting across political ideologies. They all knew the issue needed attention, they all knew that sixty years after independence malnutrition should have been eradicated from the country. Yet…

And then 29 February 2008 was one of the most memorable days of my life. I was in Parliament House, in the public gallery as the Finance Minister of India PC Chidambaram read the budget for 2008-09. I was there in the heart of the Indian Republic and democracy.

Parliament House is a huge circular building; an impressive colonial structure in which happen all things that affect India. http://www.indiasite.com/delhi/places/parliamenthouse.html

http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/

After passing through very tight security (they really do grope every body part) I was seated in the public gallery with a view worth a million dollars. Right in front of me was the Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. To my right were the Opposition benches and to my left was the Government. PM Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, PC Chidamabaram…they all came in one by one. The Baba Log (young MPs) sauntered in. Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Naveen Jindal…the senior members Kapil Sibal, Sushil Kumar Shinde…leader of the Opposition LK Advani…all dressed to the gills and very swishy swadeshi. (Of course the film star MPs did not turn up.) Then walked in the entertainer Laloo Prasad Yadav. I know the man has history but I really wanted to see him read the Railway Budget. Unfortunately I did not get a pass.

It was interesting to see the difference between the Opposition and the ruling party MPs. The latter were confident and a trifle arrogant and full of veteren parliamentarians. Most of the young MPs in the Opposition were badly dressed and seemed totally down market. I know one cannot judge a book by its cover but one would have thought that being in Parliament since 2004 might have instilled a sense of occassion in them.

So PC read the budget. Money to education, relief to women, some crores for this and some for that…and then came his googly. A total waiver of debt for farmers across India. Everyone knows about farmer suicides in India. It is a sad story. India is an agrarian society at heart and farmers the lifeblood. PC first spoke about small farmers. Before he could carry on pandemomium broke loose. ‘A pharmer iz a pharmer’, someone from the Opposition yelled. Then more of them got up and started shouting. So the governing benches got up shouted back. The Speaker kept requesting the Opposition to sit down and listen to the rest of the Budget. So on and so forth. Laloo got up. Arre baitha baitha, (sit down) he gestured to his colleagues. PN Sangma (NCP MP from Meghalaya, part of the UPA Government) came across from his sit and asked his colleagues to sit. The PM and LK Advani were silent. They must have seen this a zillion times before. I had not.

India can have a maximum 552 MPs including the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. From across the length and breadth of the country. Such a huge, diverse country with so many people. Some things work, some don’t. There are those who try their best and there are those enamoured of power. Then there are the cynical types and those who think they have not done anything worth speaking of. Rajya Sabha member and world renowned Indian film director Shyam Benegal said at a dinner table conversation that as a member of Parliament he has not yet done anything worthwhile for the country and that he still has the capacity to be shocked. Isn’t that a good thing , I asked him. Then you don’t get apathetic about anything. The level of cynicism is high he said.

Still the work has to go on. Policies are made but implementation is a problem. There is energy but it does not trickle down. Or if it is at the grassroots level it takes time to flow upwards.

That day in Parliament and the meeting before reiterated that noble intentions abound. Never mind that the Budget was populist and indicates early general elections and never mind as civilians most of us don’t realise that a good country is not about good government only. It requires participation from people.