One Of Those. Impressions of an exile. India 4.


It has been a long wait. The single flight coming in from Delhi was delayed consequently the outward bound flight is late. Impatient passengers clear their luggage through the x-ray machine; tagged and bound. The tiny airport abuzz and strangely disciplined for an Indian one. SAPNA goes in for police clearance. Her backpack full of electronics, a paper carrybag full of shopping and a precious Tibetan painting from Dharamshala.


SAPNA follows the routine. Electronics out of the backpack, into a tray. Carrybag with fragile contents carefully laid out horizontally on the x-ray machine. MALE POLICE OFFICER pompous. Now towards the female section for metal detection.


HENNA HAIRED FEMALE POLICE (HHFP) gives SAPNA the once over. Once again she is assumed to be English-speaking, ‘modern’ Indian. SAPNA takes off her two jackets.

HHFP (In English)

Why you remhowe jackets?

SAPNA(In Hindi)

So you can check me

HHFP (In English)

Did I ask you to remhowe jackets?

SAPNA (In Hindi)

No but…

HHFP (In English)

I nebher ask. Then why you remhowe? Wear them.

SAPNA quietly dons the two jackets. This is not the time to question logic and security routine. She is sad to leave Dharamshala but Delhi will be another adventure.

HHFP (In English)

Bhery good. Now I will check.

She runs the metal detector all over SAPNA’s body. Nods in approval, stamps the boarding pass and lets her through.


On the other side-which is also the exit to the runway. SAPNA carefully rearranges her cameras and laptop into the backpack, makes sure her precious painting is not damaged, nothing has been nicked and the luggage tag on both bags has been stamped. Another pompous MALE POLICE OFFICER looks on.


I know it is not in script format. Don’t know how to do it within this blog. 🙂

Dharamshala. Impressions of an exile. India 3.

Dharamshala existed in my dreams. For the longest time. Ever since I first encountered Tibetans. Way back in Bombay, during a non-existent winter (as Bombay winters are), laying out their winter wares on the pavements near Kala Ghoda. Imagine selling warm clothes to a Bombayite! Curious, I got talking to them and they told me about their journey from Dharamshala to my city. Sing-song Hindi, smiley, crinkly eyes. Then another said she had come from South India. Whatever little knowledge I had of Tibetan refugees, that bit, about a settlement in Karnataka, was news to me. After all, for the average Indian, in the days of Doordarshan, newspapers and the neonatal period of cable television, Tibetan refugees=Dalai Lama=hospitable, warm, fuzzy India + neighbourly concern. I was hooked; an invisible bond attaching me to these people from the Himalayas I know not why.  But journeys happen and how.

One day, out of the blue, or so it seemed to meine familie, I declared I wanted to work at the Tibetan hospital in Dharamshala. They thought I was mad. How could I leave Bombay and my home and medical practice to go to a ‘hill station’ ?!  I’d written them a letter see. In the pre-webbed India, where getting any information was like looking for a needle in a haystack, I had blindly written, on the blue inland letter of Indian Post, to ‘The Tibetan Hospital, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh’ asking if I could work at the hospital. I got a reply. Yes you may but only as a volunteer. They kindly included instructions on how to get there from Bombay and also a telephone number.  Could I get past the wrath of the family though?

Then I visited Sikkim. It was a trip offered to me by an uncle. He said Singapore I said Sikkim. So I was on a flight to Siliguri via Calcutta and then a bus to Gangtok, promising to call my mother everyday. Me and the backpack, one more nail in my ‘she-is-mad’ coffin. I can still feel it. Walking the streets of Gangtok, visiting Enchey Monastery, a yak ride on Chhangu Lake, going up to Nathu La looking over Tibet, the twisting Teesta river, Pelling, the shrouded Kanchenjunga…I bought my first mekhla, the traditional dress from North-East India, in a tiny village near Pelling. That was my second calling. When the Himalayas beckon you cannot ignore.

This year I was meant to go to Leh. The tickets and accomodation booked. Then the cloudburst happened.

One can say that the Tibetan refugees are doing well in Dharamshala (McLeodganj technically because that is where most of them live and that is where I stayed.) They are allowed to practice their religion, arts, culture, do business and go about their lives.  Peace prevails. Co-existence and tolerance exemplary of Indian hospitality.

The poverty is shocking. New Zealand has an annual intake of refugees from across the globe with a settlement process and follow up which is still not enough to ensure integration, where identity is always in crisis, mental health always an issue and the many manifestations of suffering unknown. What could be the state of a people living in limbo for the last fifty years? These people who followed their spiritual leader with the firm belief that they will return home one day but exist on an annual special permit?  Now a second generation is born in exile and the refugees keep coming, running away from torture and annihilation. Of course the tourists come too and they bring the money. So what? How many street stalls can you have selling the same prayer wheels and beads?

The chaos that is India is evident in McLeodganj. So is the ‘progress’-pieces of hill being cut to build malls and fancy hotels with saunas. Then there are the monasteries hidden in the by-lanes, full of monks who cannot speak a word of Hindi/English and who subsist by teaching Tibetan/Buddhism to white women in tight tee shirts and no bras. (Of course you get that in Varanasi too-with the marijuana-so spiritual tourism is not just about the Tibetans.)  It is the lack of status that broke my heart.  Old people with diapers and no teeth, ordinary people who want to go home, women beaten up by unemployed husbands, single mothers…newly born infants, just gorgeous and cuddly, who will probably never know home. Except in museums, fossilised.  All living where they don’t really belong or want to belong.

Yatha bhuta, anicca. Perhaps. But does that justify suffering? Would it be unfair to ask why India has not done more towards mediating talks between China and the Tibetans? Because offering space and place is enough? Because there are no ‘Indian’ refugees and hence we do not understand the psyche of displacement? (Post-partition Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, the Kashmiris, tribals pushed out of their land, debt-ridden villagers migrating to cities…refugees.) Because it is geopolitically not prudent to engage with China on this? How about being a world leader in developing and maintaining human values? (But then we would have to have our own house in order no?)

I would like to believe that the Tibetans get their strength from Buddhism. The non-violence, the peace, continued grit and determination. To treat them like ‘temporary refugees’ and not being pro-active in helping them realise their homeland not only undermines them but also reflects on our own core values and spirituality. Superpowers are not merely economic.

Future past. Impressions of an exile. India 2.

One of the books I am reading now is Santosh Desai’s MOTHER PIOUS LADY, a compilation of columns he has written over the years observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of middle class India. It is funny, full of sharp observations and often nostalgic about Gen X growing up in a pre-globalised India. One reviewer likened it to RK Laxman’s Common Man cartoons. Those who grew up in India and still live there know what I am talking about. The hardships, the ‘can-do-must-do’ attitude, the emphasis on dignity, the little treats once-in-a-while, the first time a family bought a television/scooter/refrigerator/electronics/even a Prestige cooker, arranged marriages, native villages as origin and end etc. Most of all the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Now that has changed. Liberalised, aspirational middle-class India does not know that eating ice-cream happened only at wedding receptions (Cassata anyone?) and on rare occasions otherwise. Or that trunk calls used to be made from post offices and generally meant bad news; otherwise people sent telegrams. We used to get post cards for 25 paise-I am not sure they are around any more. Still, this is not an exercise in nostalgia. Economic liberalisation, free-trade market, globalisation and related states were inevitable. Young Indians look into the future with positivity. The mobility, entrepreneurship, consumption, independence and individuality-to some extent. They seem to have it all. Yet the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Grounded in complacency and denial. Perhaps I have a ‘Western’ outlook to discourse and democratic responsibility and I want analysis. Every time I argued about civic process, populism and the relationship of the polity with the populace I was told ‘You have stayed away too long’, ‘We are an emotional people, we don’t like change’, ‘New Zealand is a small country so run differently’, ‘We should give the people what they want’ etc. No doubt India is a tough country to govern and Indians are complex. The culture does not make it easy either. Isn’t that precisely why Indians should be more self-aware? Shouldn’t the easier access to knowledge, information (not government process-but that is another story) and communication make us argumentative for the better?

In one of his articles Desai observes that Indians change at a pace that is comfortable with small, almost invisible steps which do not seem to disturb the status quo but actually is. Fine. But the pace at which ambition, aspiration, consumption and social behaviour is zooming such small steps create a massive disparity and inability to deal with the situation. Thomas Friedman, the great propagator of free market and author of THE WORLD IS FLAT praised India’s liberalisation and could only foresee a bright future (=money+material). There was no analysis of the social and cultural impact on Indians so deeply rooted in their traditions and structures. Here is what I thought.

Young India cannot deal with the material glut because there is no precedence. Then it turns to the past. There it is safe, there is reassurance, solidness and warmth like a mother’s bosom. Then we can chalta-hai, be like-this-only complacent because there is no need to examine the disparity between what we have, how it affects us and how we react. Because apparently everything will be alright!

Square Peg. Impressions of an exile. India. 1.

I see that I meant to write this on 17 October, soon after arriving back in Aotearoa but got occupied otherwise. So many times I ran the text of this intended blog through my head and edited it such that I could write short, sharp stuff rather than ramble on-which I tend to do.

Many times, in the weeks after I came back to Auckland, I caught myself just standing in my living room, in the silence that surrounds my house, staring at the little artefacts scattered, nah strategically placed all over. The shells from various Auckland beaches, the mini papier mache Eiffel Towers and Arc De Triomphe from Paris, the Ganeshas from Bombay and Banares, clapper board from Berlin, the books, Tibetan paintings from McLeodganj, the $30 couch from Salvation Army, the ‘donated’ television set on which I cannot watch TV One or TV2…I still do not have a proper coffee table and I dine Indian style crossed-legged on the floor. They all spoke to me. About my journey so far in life. That I am finally at a place where I can be comfortable with myself.

It took me a long time to figure out that I was/am a misfit. I was a curious child, always asking questions and not very happy with the answers. Consequently angry and disobedient. Hence bad. Not in a ‘black sheep’ way but someone who apparently needed to be firmly on a leash and kept within the patriarchy. Life was meant to be an education (a formal, school type education-for which I am very grateful), a job, a career making money, then marriage and kids. Until the day you die. No wonder I was a misfit. Going back home I am still a square peg in the round, all-sucking, Indian hole.

It took me a long time to figure out that it does not have to be like that. To get over the guilt of not thinking like everyone else, to reach this space and place that no one, not even me, thought could be a reality. Now I have to justify living this space; the unshackling and the so-called lack of responsibility in my life. I try to be blase and so does everyone else back in Bombay but the sub-text is too obvious to ignore. Then I just meditate to keep me calm.

Come back, they say. India has changed. You can be as free as you want. Be single, do live-in, shag around, whatever. As if this is what matters. What about the enquiry of existence? Or challenging the existing? Blackberry in one hand, vodka in another, designer mini dress  and preparations for karwa chauth. How is that a change? In a parallel universe I live this life. With straightened, bottle-blonde hair.

Not that I am not a misfit in New Zealand. Here I am a dark-skinned ‘ethnic’. Always classified as Indian-not that I mind it because I do not have to justify this or anything else. Such as being single, living on my own, working in mainstream media. No one tells me I ask too many questions or why can’t I be like everyone else. That is the difference. Palpable freedom with inherent responsibility and respect for choices. Of course it is not without problems, this society. It is still conservative and closed and racist and not as egalitarian as it makes out to be. But I am not judged by the money I make, the car I drive, the clothes I wear or the caste and religion I belong to. I can fully participate in the civic, democratic process without affiliating myself one way or the other.

It is true that I don’t do structure very well. Not structure imposed on me anyway. Because I work with the structure of the universe. Because nothing really is unstructured. That is where I fit in, in the bigger picture. For all my square peg-ness. New Zealand lets me be and I will go back to India only on my own terms. In conjunction with the universe.

Shrinking, dithering fusspots!

I was all ready with another blog (s) about good hair, meditation,  Maoists and Arundhati Roy haters when I changed my mind in reaction to the constant refrain from the New Zealand media about security at the Delhi Commonwealth Games. So the bomb blasts at Bangalore before the IPL cricket match were a shock. Of course. Yet the game was played and Indians carried on with their life.  If you know India then you also know that the blasts could have been the work of any kind of group. From the mafia to religious fundamentalists to even someone who wants to take revenge on Mr Lalit Modi (just an idea).  To terrorise is to intimidate by coercion and violence, as most dictionaries describe. How easily the New Zealand media is creating the space in which to ‘terrorise’ its own people about going to India for the Commonwealth Games.  By coercion, subliminal coercion. Just like any other mainstream media does in any country to keep its people in the realm of fear-for-the-self-and-mistrust-of-the-other.  Oh are our sports people safe in India? Oh, there is no security there. Oh our cricketers were outvoted over whether to abandon the IPL match or carry on. Oh there is such chaos in India. Oh the sheer madness. Tich and tach.

India has been the subject of terrorists attacks from homegrown as well as external terrorists for many years now. I cannot harp on enough about the 13-in-a-row bomb blasts that went off across Bombay on 12 March 1993. The first ever such terrorist attack anywhere in the world but then only brown people died so why should the Western world have cared? My sister was in the Sea Rock Hotel when it happened and one of my patient’s came home with glass shards lodged in his arms and tears in his eyes because he had seen his colleagues blowing up (in the Air India building). He was standing at that spot just a few minutes before! Innocent people died. They always do. But life went on.

On 26 November 2008, Pakistani terrorists went on a rampage in Bombay.  This time the images were broadcast all over the world. I wept on TV3 News. It was my neighbourhood, my city, my love. What did the New Zealand media want? They first called to ask if I knew any New Zealanders who might be in Bombay. New Zealanders=white people.  When word came out that the Deccan Mujahideen might be responsible, a bright thing from TVNZ asked me what ‘Deccan’ was. Oh and do you know of any New Zealanders there? As if the shock and loss of Bombayites, now New Zealanders, did not matter.

Would there be such a fuss if the Commonwealth Games were held in London? There is better security there no? Oh hang on, I remember something that happened on the Underground network on 7 July 2005 and later on at Glasgow Airport too.  Perhaps the Commonwealth Games should move to the U.S.A. Plenty of security. Except that Oklahoma City marked the 15 anniversary of the bombing two days ago and more Tea Parties are being held across the country than ever before. But New Zealanders will be safer in the Western world. India is chaotic and corrupt right?

Displayed in the Beehive is a tattered New Zealand flag recovered from the 9/11 rubble of the Twin Towers. What does that flag convey? New Zealanders might not be able to visit Gallipoli this year on Anzac Day because of the volcanic eruption and flight disruption. Why do New Zealanders want to pay homage to those that were commanded by colonial powers to be fodder in a losing battle? How did Sir Peter Blake die? Why is Sir Ed Hillary so revered? I have a mate who is in the Himalayas now planning to climb another mountain. He failed to make it to the peak of the Everest the first time he tried but then he did it the second time around. It is better to die trying than be afraid.

Would New Zealand media prefer if our sportsmen sat at home because of supposed lack of security or immerse themselves in the Commonwealth Games in spite of the lack of security and come back with medals?

This security business is just an issue created to make news. The Commonwealth Games in Delhi is a matter of prestige for the Government of India. Delhi will be chocker with all kinds of security. What is a minor bomb blast? You can die here when police cars take u-turns on roads or someone throws a beer bottle at you or from drink driving or just bad driving or drowning. Seriously. You can get dehydrated by the runs after eating spicy Indian food. That is more dangerous! Perhaps the fact that New Zealand and India are working on a free trade deal might be more persuasive to the media. A no show would be a bad look.

Yeah, best not be shrinking, dithering fusspots. Not only will there not be any medals, chances are economic benefits might slip away too. I don’t think the government would like that. No no.

On elections and being parochial.

Another long overdue post! Life is so busy I do not have time for self-indulgence! How terrible is that? No time to pump up my ego and think of myself as a world-changing writer 😦

These last few days I have been in and around the criminal neighbourhood of South Auckland carefully making my way inconspicuously through the dregs of socio-economic losers in case someone wants to mug me or snatch my bag. Shame some of the houses are lovely and the parks quite nice, the artworks and creativity busting to be acknowledged. Nah! Just kidding. Melissa Lee, the National Party candidate for Mt Albert by-election,  said it all two weeks ago and much has been made of the motorway-keeping-crims from South Auckland-away. So I shan’t diss her no more.Only point out (or say I said so) that just because one is an ‘ethnic’ or coloured or a minority does not mean that one believes in equality and justice for all. That is a state of the mind. An ideology. Right-wingers can come from anywhere even the poor.

Election campaigns are always entertaining and all candidates talk bullshit at some point. I immensely enjoy elections and campaigns. And nothing more entertaining than Indian elections.

At one level I feel stupidly patriotic and proud that in spite of naysayers and doomsday prophets India has continued to confound the world by the relatively smooth electoral process that takes place every four-five years. It is a massive, complex operation in a huge and diverse country. It has to be transparent too. Indians do it over and over again. As if there is an inherent need to believe in democracy even though it may not work the way we want it to. Am I making sense? When surrounded by chaos, terrorists, military juntas and communists-the way India is-the only thing to believe is in oneself, the right to choose and be free. This time the election results were so decisive that the right-wing Hindutva will have to think hard about killing any more people and building temples. Not that the Indian National Congress is innocent or blameless. There is a lot of work to be done and we really should get over to being an American minion. In order to be a real global player we have to have our house in order, look at health, education, environment, the arts, representation of minorities and women. Like all Indians I have an opinion on how things should be done but my theory is not yet well-formed and I don’t have an answer/solution to all the problems. The only thing I can say is that we have to build the country on peace, love and inclusion.

Which gets to me to the point of parochialism. A professor of English who recently read my blog asked me how I could be supportive of Raj Thakeray (see Frogs In A Pond-I) when I advocate multiculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Naturally I was appalled. Gosh! I thought my politics were pretty clear.  While I acknowledge that there are issues in Bombay/Mumbai and particularly in the Marathi areas, the solutions offered by Raj and Co are not.  What Raj and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena are doing is to work up the fear factor and to make people insecure instead of inclusive and broadminded. Mee Marathi but that is not my only identity and I recommend it should not be of other Maharashtrians either. That MNS candidates ate into the BJP-Shiv Sena votes in Maharashtra, particularly Mumbai goes to show the unfortunate support it has amongst Marathi people. How that is going to play itself in the upcoming state (Vidhan Sabha elections) is anybody’s guess.

What I learnt this year

Today is the last day of 2008. I am going on a road trip by myself. Something I could’ve never done in India. I have travelled to Sikkim by myself in 2000 and went to Varanasi this year but the concept of driving my car through rural New Zealand can only happen in New Zealand. Speaking in relative terms, how safe is this country? Very. It is more than a month now since the terrorist attacks on my hometown Bombay. As I have mentioned many times before, the name Mumbai conjures up a singular, parochial, ultra-right-wing Hindu patriarchal identity that reduces the people of the city into disposable humans. That is what the ruling class have done to India. That is what the business class is doing to India and that is what the communists are doing to India. The Congress party, the current government of India is a namby-pamby American slave. The right wing, the Hindutva brigade pay obeisance to Hitler and think nothing of creating mayhem just to ‘cleanse’ the country. The communists have no practical socialist agenda and don’t really offer space for dialogue or solutions. (Mind you I am a lefty, if I have to be placed within a spectrum I will lean towards socialism. And no it is not dead. The marketing machine has lost its mojo.)

Anyway, after crying my heart out over what happened in Bombay on 26-27 November, I deliberately did not write a blog about it because I did not want to blubber on about what wrong the politicians are doing. They are easy fodder. I am interested in what the educated middle class Indian thinks, what the media thinks and what we are going to do about it. It is easy for me, sitting here in Auckland to comment about Bombay/India. I might not have been able to do it if I still lived in Bombay.  So I waited anbd watched. There was the typical reaction. ‘We need more security’; ‘attack Pakistan’; ‘politicians are real terrorists’ etc. The media plays an interesting role in India. Rubert Murdoch’s Star network set the ‘standard’ by having an insidious, right-wing agenda for an aspirational middle class that only blames politicians. Now the others have adapted that too. There is a lot of shouting on Indian television.  And place only for elitist analysis. The Times Of India I find particularly fascinating. When I was little my grandfather inisted on me reading TOI because I could improve my English. Now I cringe when I read it online. It is a habit I find hard to break , sadly. So I cringe and carp about the language and the agenda. TOI is so subtly right wing that if you blinked you could miss it. There is talk of Shining India and success and all the trappings a growing middle class needs to feel separate and superior to the poor. The subtext is all ‘them’ and ‘us’. There has not been an analysis of the attacks or why they happened.

Fortunately, the Indian middle class seems to be waking up. Candlelight vigils and protests are the trend for the moment. A trend, my cynical mind says. Politicians have screwed up the country, they all say. What about us, we the people? Do we abdicate after voting each year? I agree the ruling classes have deliberately made it difficult for the common man to obtain information, there is lack of transparency, lack of proper process or dialogue and I will go even so far as to state that illiteracy is a desirable condition for politicians because the illiterate and poor can be manipulated. But then so can the educated middle class. Manipulated to believe that it is always someone else’s fault. Why hasn’t anyone spoken about the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots in 1992-1993 that led to the bomb blasts on 12 March 1993? We made our country vulnerable! We continue to keep it vulnerable with the socio-economic disparity, religious differences, intolerance and patriarchy. LK Advani, at his age,  should be practicing vanaprashtashram not spreading hatred. I am sorry to say but ek pair kabar mein (one foot in the grave) and he is dying to become the Prime Minister of India.

The way we have created our society, the myth about ‘respecting our elders’ does not permit us to ask sane questions or challenge notions-which is why Indian youth rarely fall out of line. Which is why, as a middle class, it took us one horrific incident to begin to take responsibility for ourselves. The way we let the rich and elite rule us, the media mould our minds that we have not yet learnt the art and craft of serious, critical discourse. Can we talk about introspection? Can we see how we consume and maintain populist sentiment because it is ‘safe’? Can we see how repeated talk about ‘security’ has blinded us to the cracks within?

Out of all the writings that came out after 26/11/2008, this essay by Arundhati Roy encompasses all the issues and why India should not be enslaved to America and why we need to start talking about our problems, not leave them to the rich, elite or political class.

I cry for my Bombay. I see her decaying and dying. Her ‘spirit’, as the politicians so love to say, is nothing but the helplessness of a people bound to earning their living in the face of hardship and recession. There is no space or place for them to seek counselling, to express their emotions-then it all comes out in riots and mental illness. I cry for this state of paralysis.

But through it I only see hope. Maybe we Indians will learn to take charge on day, to challenge, to see tangentially, to counter politicians and the media, to be able to laugh at ourselves, to constantly introspect and not feel ashamed about it. I hope.

That is what I learnt this year. For something good to happen, we first have to experience something horrible. And of course that the world is connected no matter what. If we don’t want more attacks on Bombay we have to think about how the Israel-Palestinian issue can be sorted. Because everything has a trickle down affect.

Happy New Year (and more blogging from me, inshallah.)

Frogs In A Pond-1

Raj Thakeray has done it again! We, the Marathi people, dither between agreeing with the ‘Mumbai-being-taken-over-by-the-North-Indians’ idea and abhorring the methodology of getting rid of them. Before I pontificate there are a few things to clear. My current city of residence is Auckland, New Zealand. I choose to live here. My hometown is Bombay/Mumbai. I am a daughter-of-the-soil. Hardcore. My grandfather was born in Bombay in 1899. He was a municipal corporator in the Bombay Municipal Corporation in the first post-independence elections. There is a street junction named after him. My father was involved with the Sanyukta Maharashtra movement. I was born in Bombay/Mumbai and have lived almost all my life in the family home at Girgaum (where my grandfather lived since 1928). I also spent some years in Dadar. Both Maharashtrian enclaves. Most of my family and friends live in Bombay/Mumbai. Serious, white collar middle-class. Yes. Mee Marathi. I belong to the state of Maharashtra; I am a Bombayite, Mumbaikar. But it is only one part of my identity; of who I am. In this post-globalised world, where mobility and migration are taken for granted, I am many things; I have multiple identities.

Unfortunately, like all fundamentalists, Raj Thakeray believes in the concept of a singular identity. He also believes in fanning the insecurity of his own people to enable his rise to power. How visionary is that? To generate fear in your own people; to take them backwards and create hatred for other people because they are ‘taking over’? Why just him, the government of Maharashtra has abdicated its responsibility towards its people in the name of populism and with an eye on the next state and Lok Sabha (general) elections. Raj wants power, the government wants to get back into power, they both want to eliminate Uddhav Thakeray from the race…so why not sacrifice Mumbai Aai, Mother Mumbai? She does not have a voice anyway. I am intimate with many of those bang in the middle of this madness. All sons and daughters of Maharashtra. The lone voice of sanity I spoke to and who can possibly take action is also relatively helpless because there are forces she cannot control. Such an emotive issue this is. If I was in Girgaum at this moment the discussion would be all about the bhaiyyas who ran away back to North India. Jai Maharashtra!

Instead I am going to try and analyse the problem. Purely from the point of view if being a migrant, from being a Bombayite and a generally opinionated person 🙂 It is very complex from my p-o-v and not just about North Indian migrants. It is about the Indian democracy, the bureaucracy, the attitude of the Indian public to democracy; it is about caste, community, culture, aspirational values, money and the Indian politicians.

In a crazy, chaotic, multilingual, multicultural democracy like India where Indians can travel to and live in any part of the country it becomes more complicated. There are bound to be tensions and problems within the diversity and between people of different states. Such is the structure of India.

Those North Indians that come to Bombay are ready to do any job and work any number of hours and anywhere in the city. They come because there is absolute poverty in their states. Maharashtrians on the other hand rarely travel outside Maharashtra. I generalise here because even within Maharashtra there are regional differences. The Kokanis, those from Vidarabha, from Pune-side etc etc.  But we Maharashtrians are relativey unambitious, unadventurous, keeping our heads down, nine-five kind of people. Many of us are lazy too. And we complain a lot. On the positive side we have great wit, humour, theatrical traditions and we are a progressive, socialist kind of people who treat women well. Of course there will be friction.

Then there is the lack of infrasctructure in Bombay. The state ignored her, the centre ignored her and the people-the locals-the sons and daughters of the soil showed no sense of ownership. That Bombay has problems of gigantic proportions is not new. How much can one milk a strip of land made from seven islands along the Arabian Sea? There is no place for expansion, there is the Land Ceiling Act (now repealed) and greedy politicians who don’t love the city. Rarely have the people of Mumbai protested against all this. Oh there have been bandhs and rail rokos and other kinds of mob protests against the ruling government (and mostly instigated by Shiv Sena) but not a civil discussion about how things can change/should be changed. Democracy in India is about ‘civil disobedience’ and this civil disobedience is about riots and vandalism; about beating up people. We lack a sense of history and heritage as well.

That money rules Mumbai is also not new. How many Maharashtrians can afford a place in their own city? How many Maharashtrian ‘developers’ exist? (That Raj Thakeray and Manohar Joshi are developing the Kohinoor Mill Compound in Dadar is interesting-wonder who many ‘marathi mansa’ will be able to afford flats there?) Besides the city has always been built ad hoc. None of the old textile mill compounds now being developed have allowed for green spaces or to accomodate redundant textile mill workers and their families-who incidentally are part of the mobs that Raj incites. They look at the highrises and resent the outsiders. It is human nature. Even I get irritated at the Marwaris that are now buying the chawls in Girgaum and converting them to ‘vegetarian only’ building societies. Only because they have the money to buy prime South Bombay land.

Also we Mumbaikars have rarely tried to own our city. It is always someone else’s fault. The bhaiyyas now sell fresh fish door to door because the native fisherfolk of Mumbai don’t do it any more. Their young ones are now at university. That is just how the social order changes with time. When the Shiv Sena was ruling the state after the 1992-93 riots, ‘the boys’ were given licences and permits to run their street food stalls. Pav Bhaji, Vada Pav, Chai…the staple diet of the man on the street and employment for ‘the boys’-the locals. All Mumbaikars know and I have it from the mouth of those-that-pay-obeisance-to-the-Thakerays ‘the boys’ rented these food stalls to others (South and North Indians) and are back to being unemployed. That is how the social order is maintained ya? Through laziness. So that ‘the boys’ can hang out at the galli nakas and be ready to beat up anyone at the drop of a hat. Now that is hard work!

Because Indian democracy is crazy the way it is and the bureaucracy and politicians deliberately maintain the divide between them and the ‘common man’, the regular citizen is unable to engage with the powers-that-be. On the other hand we common citizens merely vote and leave the rest to the government thinking it is the government’s job to make things happen. It is a bad situation. And then we have those that are the frogs in a pond. Those who never get the bigger picture because all they want is power and money. Like all Indian politicians.

(There’s more to come in another blog.)

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. 🙂 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?

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.