March 14, 2010

Mainstreaming the Margin

Book Review (Colour of Gratitude is Green by Amit Sengupta)

Published in Combat Law - the human rights bi-monthly magazine

21 February 2010

Colour of Gratitude is Green presents a vivid, fascinating, multi-hued trajectory of the history, politics, and contradictory reality of the Indian subcontinent and beyond, from the lens of a scribe who has seen the ebb and flow of the business of journalism very closely.

Gifted with a deep political insight and passionate flare, Amit Sengupta’s writings serve to reveal, alarm, and touch the reader. Most of the selections in this book lay before you this pluralist, anti-pluralist, unified, fragmented, united, torn, breathing, choking mass that is India. But the author’s experiences are not limited just to India. He speaks as easily of the Tiananmen Square massacre as Nandigram, talks about Latin American revolutions with as much élan as the Maoist revolution in Nepal, describes Lhasa with as much passion as a market in the heart of Delhi, celebrates Brecht and Gramsci with as much fervour as Ritwick Ghatak and Maitreyi Pushpa. Who else can better capture the emotions of the death of an anonymous homeless person, the grief of tsunami survivors, the horror of farmer suicides, and the vacuity of fashion shows in a country of hunger. As he writes in one of his essays, “There are stories within stories. Eyes within lies. Wisdom outside knowledge.”

These are not the writings of a typical journalist who swallows the news — breaking or other — and spits it out in columns of reportage, regurgitated with whiffs of sensationalism, but someone who absorbs the paradoxes of life and its contemporary juxtapositions, internalises them with feeling, views them through a historical lens, and presents them to the reader with an intellectual analysis and poetic passion that’s hard to come across. In the end, the reader may not agree with what he says, may not like how he says it. It may hurt, anger, offend, and move. But the book forces the readers to think, to question, to reflect. That’s the point of Amit Sengupta’s writing, where he makes this transition from the page to the heart.

As the trajectory of the book unfolds, the reader witnesses essays, columns, reports, articles, conversations, and book reviews, all carefully selected and well laid.

On the one hand the author strips the glossy coating of the India Shining brigade but only to further reveal India Smiling. Beneath the tears, pain, oppression, marginalisation and suffering, he paints poetic images, of ordinary and extraordinary heroes, and celebrates love, poetry, passion and dreams.

The writings expose uncomfortable truths — the contradictions of the pseudo Left in India, the fundamentalist frenzy of the Hindu Right, the unbearable weight of the political silence over Nandigram, the pain of excluded dalits in Rajasthan, the failures of the State and its orchestrated violence, its systemic machinery of oppression and its tools of silencing.

Amit Sengupta takes up causes of dalits, the working class, women, but the people he celebrates are not just anonymous faces, but living heroes with real names and powerful stories. For instance, Bant Singh, the rebel dalit singer of Mansa, who brutally lost his arms and leg for organising landless farmers and speaking out against injustice; Phoolan Devi, the real feeling, breathing, abused woman behind the media that created sensation; poet Uday Prakash, who recreates the margins, and poignantly captures the reality of the poor as he says, “When they bulldoze the homes of the poor, the bulldozers can be Left or Right, it seems the same to me.” And Medha Patkar who the author calls St. Stamina, the relentless campaigner for justice, an icon of hope for the displaced and marginalised across the country.

The author writes about places unheard of, ignored, forgotten, such as Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh, Gwangju, South Korea, Kutch to name a few. He writes about the politics of struggle and creative rebellion; of radical poets and progressive writers and alternative voices.

The book is a compilation of Amit Sengupta’s sensitive writings which revolve around the passionate fervour of youth, the undercurrents of love, the overcurrents of violence, idealism of dreams, cynicism of reality, the harshness of the class divide, the ugliness of consumerism, the silence of suffering, the hypocrisy of the mainstream, the wind of revolution, the poetry of rain, and the colour of feelings.

The pieces I loved reading most are “Life is Like this Only” where the author writes, “The world is so full of itself that we miss the daily joy of life’s unfolding letters, written with dew drops on leaves…” and “God Lives Elsewhere” where he reveals the irony of the brutal eviction of thousands to make space for the phenomenal Akshardham temple, for a God who lives in our hearts? “So why does God needs this rolling-in-wealth real estate? And if he resides in the quietness of our hearts, in every bird, word, leaf and leaf storm…if he lives in the winter wind which we breathe and if he is formless and infinite, objective and ethereal, essence and presence, then why does he need a lavish place in concrete as his residence on earth? Whose god is this God?…. Days after the festival of lights, the diya still burns in this dark expanse under the Nizamuddin bridge, as if telling the dazzling Akshardham adorned with hundreds of lights, that yes, God lives elsewhere.”

I like how Sengupta writes, “Life beckons the subaltern and the mainstream with equal passion… it is that secret essence of intangible substances, which you must hold when such miracles of life meet you suddenly on the streets.” He reminisces on the loss of life’s deep simplicity in “Dal Fry at Mughalsarai” where he says “life was not so complicated – the air was not conditioned, water didn’t arrive in plastic, food had nothing to do with aluminum foils, and distances were never a big hurry.”

Conversations with intellectuals, thinkers and activists like Ashis Nandy, Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar, Taslima Nasreen, and Dipankar Bhattacharya capture insightful revelations of the times we live in.

Another important characteristic of Amit Sengupta’s writing is anger. In some of the writings, there is pain, criticism and dry cynicism, but there is also hope. That is why he celebrates all men and women as intellectuals in his piece “The Necessity of Flowered Man.” He writes, “Revolutions move relentlessly in invisible spirals, of quiet, volcanic, unseen social unrest, in the daily struggles of survival and despair, when the radical turning point is waiting in the next by-lane of an unknown village” (The Train Stops at Nandigram).

The unquenching thirst of the author to explore, discover and rediscover, is visible in the chapter “Rediscover those Alphabets” where he urges, “Like children, let us rediscover those alphabets which we seem to have forgotten: the dialectic of enlightenment and the quest for a new dream”… “That is why the Sahir song comes back yet again: Woh subah kabhi to aayegi. Like the El Salvador slogan in the early 1980s: The Dawn is No Longer an Illusion.”

Prof. Avijit Pathak, in the introduction to the book, writes how Sengupta, a former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, “cherishes dreams, celebrates visions. Read his revelations and get enchanted.”

Read Colour of Gratitude is Green slowly to savour its poetry, feel its politics. Let its jarring questions and unpleasant truths rankle your conscience. And let its passion drench your soul with hope and dreams.

The author is a human rights activist based in New Delhi

November 25, 2009

Nightmares of a Dystopia

Published in HARD NEWS, October 2009

It’s that time of the year again, when the ghost of a recent past knocks on fear’s doors and holds the future hostile… A day eight years ago when history seems to have turned its current course. A day after which nothing seemed the same, after which, as a line from W.B. Yeats says, “All, all is utterly changed…” Or is it? In some parts of the world, at least. For some groups of people, at least. September 11, 2001 -- a day that still holds freedom hostage for the world’s majority; for the world’s “other” people; a day that redefined liberty, terror, movement, freedom, self-expression, tolerance, identity, and geopolitics.

Much as I would rather not talk about this 9/11, I feel compelled to, given the paralysed state of the world, where a self-imposed fear defines who can and who cannot be. Where the other is more sought after, more rejected, and more oppressed, than ever before. Where brown, black, beards and beautiful unfamiliar languages are untolerated, suspected and decried. Where smiles, glances and emotions are analysed by “terror experts” and labelled “suspicious.” Where hunches are legal. Where instinct is doubt and normal is evil. Where difference is danger. Where no one is innocent. Where humanity lives within a vacuum of trust.

Fear is always self-induced, and finds its origins in the annals of individual insecurity. Yet when it is transformed into a collective phenomenon and institutionalised, it is indeed a fearful occurrence. And when this hyped up, baseless paranoia bred on ignorance and xenophobia, defines law and foreign policy, it is intensely alarming.

It is not so much the date September 11, 2001, but the unrelenting spiral of events it is associated with having unleashed. Even though most of these are outcomes of events predicated on phenomena that predated it greatly. Avoidable yet inevitable, miscalculated yet ominous.

Eight years later, there is much to lament and still much to fight for. Much we need to question – the prejudicial jingoism in the media and vacuous speeches of war mongerers, the rampant propagation of the psychosis of fear, the redefinition of what is acceptable and unacceptable… Many we need to confront – the Bushes, Blairs, Modis, the weapon and humvee manufacturers, the uniformed and ununiformed who kill for peace, who arrest to free, who obliterate to preserve, who violate to protect, who annihilate to liberate…

And as we struggle to challenge the ironies the system breeds, the deceit it propagates, the injustice it legalises, and the violations of human rights it justifies as protection from “terror,” there is much to grieve – the erosion of democratic principles, the burgeoning of mistrust, the concretisation of a “philosophy of revenge,” the bloodshed, the thousands of deaths – Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir, Lebanon, Madrid, New York, Mumbai, London, Manipur, Chhatisgarh, Assam... the child graves, the young Muslim men languishing in detention centres without any hope of a fair trial, the constant ridicule of those who look different, the condemnation of girls in headscarves, the young widows and orphans, the broken hearts and dreams, the soldiers who shoot when their hearts say no, the tears that don’t stop, the wounds that don’t heal, and the anger that doesn’t quell …

Yet all is not lost. There are subversive counter-currents rising, a resistance brewing, a hope rooted in justice, substantive equality and non-discrimination. A vision that is giving many the strength to defy, resist and recreate, against all the odds.

And let us not forget that it was also on September 11, 1906 that Mahatma Gandhi launched his satyagraha in South Africa. Satyagraha literally means “clinging to truth” though the term satya encompasses a much broader understanding of truth. It is not merely truth as opposed to falsehood; but also signifies the ‘real’ as opposed to the unreal or non-existent. Satyagraha is a force manifested through non-violent persuasion. While it was the driving philosophy and praxis of the Indian freedom struggle, 103 years later, the spirit of Gandhi’s satyagraha lives on and the incessant struggle for truth goes on, in different forms, around the world. And it is probably only through a creative satyagraha that we will be able to ultimately rescind the repressive forces that the more recent 9/11 unleashed.

Gandhi’s satyagraha was spurred by a personal racist attack when he was thrown out of a train for the inappropriate colour of his skin. It is in this context that history brings us another significant anniversary from South Africa: September 12, 1977. The day when Stephen Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness movement in anti-apartheid South Africa died, as a result of injuries received from authorities while in detention.

An outspoken student leader and a fearless visionary, Steve Biko was arrested at the age of thirty in the wake of the urban revolt of 1976. He remains a controversial figure for his radical philosophy, but for the majority of South Africans, Biko was the greatest revolutionary who gave them fire to fight the oppression. Lovingly called “bantu” – an isiXhosa word meaning, “people,” Biko was a legacy and the spoken conscience of a people who lives on 33 years after his brutal murder.

We still live in a world dominated by the politics of exclusion, which though the same, take on different hues. And in this era where fear of a typecast other of a specific colour drives foreign policy, travelling prerogatives and racial profiling, Biko’s philosophy holds more true than ever. South Africa might have vanquished apartheid, but today’s fear-induced world is creating vicious forms of global apartheid.

The philosophy of Black Consciousness evolved not just to challenge white supremacy but also to express group pride and the determination of the black to rise and attain the envisaged self. It aimed to rid blacks of any attacks on their self-esteem from within or outside. It was through this politicised reclamation of identity that resistance could become real. Within the dialectic of Biko’s “black consciousness” lies the gestation of “brown consciousness” and perhaps an “Islamic consciousness,” which in this age of growing Islamophobia, could probably evolve as a powerful tool to combat it.

Just as Black Consciousness reclaimed the positive political identity of blacks while dispelling fear and engendering respect, the progressive articulation, dissemination and internalisation of “Islamic consciousness” could do the same in order to reclaim its terrain, reassert its pride, and dismantle phobic stereotypes, while charting its future struggle.

In a book of his selected writings, I Write What I Like, Biko claims that, “We are oppressed not as individuals… We are oppressed because we are black. We must use that very concept to unite ourselves and to respond as a cohesive group. We must cling to each other with a tenacity that will shock the perpetrators of evil.” In these times when difference is the basis of the exclusion-building project, this tenacious clinging in struggle, is perhaps the only way to bring down the oppressive system.

Racism, as we know, has always been about power politics, phobias, prejudices and subjugation for self-interest. Much as I abhor the word, in this post 9/11 world, an extreme form of racism has become institutionalised and horrifyingly, legalised. From the rewriting of airport security rules to the passage of draconian laws like the US Patriot Act, from the uncondonable existence of Guantanamo Bay to the internationally unjustifiable invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, the international community, despite its remonstrations, seems to have swallowed these as “inevitable outcomes” of the dangerous times we live in.

The way fear is being used to create fear only creates an interminable cycle built on the self-defeating irrationality of paranoia. The propagation of this fear is also spurred by the systematic diffusion of illusion. An illusion that the dominant media disseminates with an alarming non-objectivity, largely because of what Edward Said in Covering Islam ascribes to as the profoundly one-sided and skewed interchange between Islam and the “west,” particularly the US. And to the fact that even when religiosity is spreading everywhere, it is ascribed solely to Islam. The irony lies in how unilateralism is used to challenge unilateralism, and in how the fascist “war on terror” is labelled the war on “Islamist fanaticism” when it is fed and fuelled by an extreme fanaticism.

Driving this agenda has been the ideology of neo-conservatism, which has proliferated itself as the preferred political paradigm of those who worship neocon icons like Cheney who peddle the rhetoric of fear and politics of empire through measures like oil for blood.

As the post 9/11 world moves forward on its trajectory of redefining normal and typecasting the other, I believe a reflection on Biko’s treatise is useful. Even though we occupy different social, political, geographic spaces, and might have different histories, I think, through a philological understanding, there is something in each of us that Biko speaks to. Just as Gandhi does.

Biko, like Gandhi, dreamed of a non-racial egalitarian society. A society, in which, Biko says, “Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the life-styles of the various groups. This is true integration.”

Let us remember that Black Consciousness is a way of life. Let us hold in our hearts that it is also brown consciousness, coloured consciousness, subaltern consciousness. A consciousness to trample repressive ideologies of racial/ gender/religious/class/caste supremacy, to reclaim usurped spaces, to shape satyagraha, and to define praxis for an integrated society.

The context may be different. The dominant discourse might be dystopian. But we can rechart its direction. Not one defined by restrictive binaries of non-violence or violence, of moderate or extreme, but a resistance shaped by creative mutations of organic strategies born of local histories, sufferings and visions of justice.

Though Biko would probably not agree, because in some ways one has to be of the oppressed to fight the oppressor, I still feel, that in some sense, we are all black today. We are all brown. Just as we are all Muslims, all Palestinians, all Lebanese… Just as we are all on the other side of the system’s fence. Just as we are all struggling to reclaim democracy and justice. And it gets harder when they keep building more fences and fuelling more fears. But fear is futile, and fences are made to be torn down. And until we dismantle the fences, we will need Biko and Gandhi and others like them.

The author is a human rights activist based in New Delhi 

September 12, 2009

Remembering Biko

September 12, 1977 - the day Steve Biko,a thirty year old anti-apartheid activist and leader of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa was murdered in a prison. In memory of Biko, i wrote this piece, a long time ago....

Even though we might occupy different social political geographic spaces, and might have different histories, i think (through a philological understanding) there is something in each of us that Biko speaks too...

Remembering Biko

he was named "bantu"
an isiXhosa word meaning "people"
but it is a rare individual who can
live up to such a name
stephen bantu biko was not just a person
but a collectivity, a movement, a legacy
the spoken conscience of a people
that lives on 32 years after his cold blooded murder
in a south african prison.

32 years later biko,
it's still a cruel world.
just life, not a just life.
the politics of exclusion have similar but different hues
difference is still considered dangerous
colour still fractures, corrupts, taints, estranges
but colour is not rational, not deterministic, not definite

brown could be black
somewhere black is brown, brown is red
somewhere coloured is black+white
somewhere else coloured is black/brown/red/yellow...
not to forget that white is also a colour
so we are all coloured
or we are all colourless
just as we are all people

puerile semantic gymnastics? yes and no.

mutable mutating illusionary boundaries, but also
strong labels forging stronger identities
and often immutable realities

racism is not just about "race"

but about
power politics
phobias prejudices
historical distortions, relegations
incontestable insecurities
selective ignorance
self aggrandizement
concerted conditioning
fallacy perpetuation
cultural imperialism

lamentably, not much has changed, biko.

black consciousness (BC) is alive
but BC is still not always "PC"
why not?

BC is an attitude, an ethos
"a way of life"
a celebration
of identity, of oneness, of difference

BC is also
brown consciousness
coloured consciousness
subaltern consciousness
oppressed consciousness

BC is about
breaking the silence
trampling ideologies of racial (gender/religious/class/caste) supremacy
liberating the mind

BC is about
shattering stereotypes
strengthening resistance
reclaiming spaces

BC is about
rescinding historical amnesia
confronting hegemony
creating praxis

BC is about
overhauling the 'system'
shunning tokenism
engendering equality

BC is about
balancing power imbalances
instituting revolution
making justice live

BC is about
redefining 'normalcy'
annihilating racism
creating real integration

BC is about
attaining a realm of
colour unconsciousness
through organic consciousness...

in some sense, biko, we are all black.
we are all "bantu"

one day i will wake up
and 'they' will be able to
get under my skin
get over my colour

September 11, 2009


मल्हार में मेघा
धीमे  आंसुओं की

बरसात में गरजना
धड़कते दिल का

मिलन में बहार
धुंधले सपनो का

करीबी में फासला
जालिम जुदाई का

इश्क की चांदनी में
तरसती हूँ
तुम्हारी इक बूँद के लिए

September 9, 2009

Cor do Coração

A dor do coração
não sabe
palavras nem tempo
Tal como o amor

São cores da
mesma pintura
Claro, escuro, às vezes
Quem determina
E´a luz do coração

Que esta luz
não se apague
Que o coração
sonhe sempre
Que continue a
amar com a força
Do vento, do
sol e do mar

Que a dor desapareça
Na alegria do sol
A cada dia, cada manhã
Depois da
longa noite, a madrugada

A esperança e
a fé no amor
Nasçam nos
raios do sol

September 6, 2009

Words - Past and Present

Some of you – my regular readers and supporters – have been asking me to post my recent published articles in one place... so after repeated requests, i've put together a list of links to some of my recent writing.... in case people have lots of spare time to read!

WSF 2004: What Someone Felt

India Shining?

Fading Drumbeats of Dissent

Another Realm is Possible: The MST in Brazil

Talking about Freedom?

Death of a Newspaper Boy

20 Years of the NBA: Ma Rewa Tera Pani Amrit

Million Dollar Slums and the Great Betrayal

Revolutionary in a Fortress

Two Years and Still Waiting

Exiled in your Own Imaginary Homelandhttp://

Tsunami Survivors Still at Sea

August 8, 2009

Hare Baba!

Brazil makes me incredibly happy. It also makes me sad. You can't have the ecstacy without the agony, can you? Because then it wouldn't be life. It wouldn't be real. And Brazil is life. It is real. More than real. And here, in this land of passion and pain, i find myself swaying in the narrow space between the two...

The warmth of the people, their affection, and their ability to live life to the fullest is what keeps my soul singing. The vibrance, the love, and the music make my spirit smile. But there is much suffering here. Much violence. Much heartbreak. Like everywhere else. But here it's different. Everything seems more intense. The joy and the grief. Because Brazil is intense. Brazilians are intense. And all my experiences here are intense too.

Deep in my heart there's an alegria, an intense joy. But a deep feeling of saudade too.... How do i explain saudade in English? I can't. It has no translation. It's more than missing something or someone.... It's longing, love, memory, ecstatic joy and grief at the same time... And when i'm away from Brazil the saudades only get stronger and linger in every space within me.

Brazil is contradiction. Like India. The richest and the poorest. The penthouses and the favelas. The homeless and the helicopters. In Rio and São Paulo, it's not uncommon to see helicopters circling above high rise buildings. Many apartment terraces have helipads where their residents land and take off. Inequalities are among the highest in the world. Violence is on the rise. Armed assaults and random theft. I even saw a bus being hijacked.

Brazil is music and passion. Despite the pain and suffering people heal themselves with beautiful music and dance, and of course cerveja (beer) and cachaça. Brazil is drama. Not as much as Bollywood, but Brazilians are dramatic - in their speech, in their gestures, and in their lives! That's why i love them!

Neoliberalism still underlies the policies of the Left government. Social movements are disillusioned. Change is not in the direction the poor dreamed it would be. Land is still owned by a small minority. The landless are still struggling for land rights, still occupying unproductive land, still building homes on hope. But the road is long and the end seems distant.

Mechanised agriculture, intensive industrialisation, and rising monocultures dramatically shift socio-economic-political relationships, cultures and lifestyles. Brazil prides itself, like India, on not being as adversely affected by the global financial crisis but there is evidence of rising unemployment and poverty.

And here in this land of mystery and misery, joy and suffering, intensity and passion, this indiana finds herself far from home but almost at home.... And in this era in Brazil where the most popular television soap opera (telenovela) is a part Indian fantasy, i find myself even more in demand, more in intrigue, more in vogue - than ever before. India has always held this magical allure in Brazil. Whenever i say i'm from India, i'm met with exclamations - "Eeenjeeaa? Mesma?" (India? Really?)... And then once the excitement dies down, the barrage of questions begins.... The first one always, predictably, unfailingly is: Você assistiu a novela? O que acha? (Have you watched the soap opera? And what do you think?)

What do i think? It's hysterical! It's amusing. It's exaggerated. It's not real. It's a bit ridiculous. It's Ekta Kapoor gone nuts in a Brazilian way. But it's struggling to be authentic. And what do you have? Brazilians pretending to be Indians, living in lavish havelis in Jaipur, decked to the hilt in sherwanis and trendy blouses and saris, dancing to Bollywood beats, making chai, but speaking Portuguese with a liberal smattering of strangely accented Hindi words: thik hai thik hai, chalo chalo, dekko, acha, Lord Ganesha, baguan kile. What was the last one? I had to turn on the subtitles on the television to figure that out - Bhagwan ke liye (for God's sake)!

The soap opera is based in Rio de Janeiro, Dubai and Jaipur. But the name is Caminho das Indias (pathway to India) and the obsession, obviously, is with India. With the clothes, the music, the dances, the traffic, the chaos, the cows on the street, the autorickshaws, the caste system, the class structure, the language...

This is Brazil chasing India with a passion that could only be Brazilian!

India is hot. Saris are cool. Everything Indian is a la mode.... Indian cosmetic jewellery is sold at street fairs, people want chai, young girls wear bindis, people are humming "Beedi jalayle jigar se piya" (the title song of the serial - from the movie Omkara), Bollywood music blares from roadside boomboxes and can be heard in stores and restaurants, and Indian names are gaining popularity (though Ravi and Rajesh become Brazilised to Havi and Hajesh)!

Curiosity is high. The images are partially distorted. The romance with India is obsessive. And the questions don't stop! So i have to watch a few more episodes of this soap opera in order to be able to respond! Someone on the street in Ouro Preto asks me, "Você é dalichee ou brahme" (are you a dalit or brahmin)? A Cearan in an Amazonian restaurant tries to be funny and asks me if Indian women have multiple hands as the goddesses shown in the novela! People want me to translate the song beedi and ask me to teach them Indian dance moves. I could become rich selling Indian goods and giving dance classes.

The kids in a primary school in a favela in Heliopolis in São Paulo greet me with a unanimous namaste the minute the teacher tells them i'm from India. The host of a community radio show, after asking me about slums, social problems, and poverty in India, wants to know what i think of the novela too!

Well, all of us are not ultra conservative, don't live in Rajasthani havelis, consult pandits for everything, and dance all day (including in cinema halls)! Nor do we say Haré Baba all the time!

Yes that's the most used phrase in the novela. They probably mean arre baba (almost akin to oh gosh!), but say Haré Baba! That's Brazilian Hindi! If you listen attentively to people speaking around you on the streets in Brazil, you might just hear someone exclaiming Hare Baba in the course of the conversation! It's even found its way into text messages. So the next time you feel like exclaiming in a different way, try Hare Baba! If not in India, everyone in Brazil will definitely know what you mean!

To see more on the novela, including clips and images, check out:

June 19, 2009

Brasil dentro de mim...Eu dentro do Brasil

Brazil flows in my blood...all the time... even when i'm far...

A Brazilian rhythm beats in my heart, always...

And when i arrive here, in this land of love, passion, hope, faith, struggle, beauty, and abundant affection and warmth, my heart sings and my veins throb with the passion of being alive... For that's what Brazil is for me. Living without repression, feeling without thinking, expressing without fear. Touching hearts. Being touched. Being overwhelmed.

As the Italian photographer Alex Magoli so rightly said, "People go to psychologists, I go to Brazil..."

Because Brazil has this incredible ability to heal... to restore... to revive... to give... to be...
It's where you find beauty in pain, music in melancholy, warmth in strangers, passion in every moment. Where every pore of your being overflows with an abundance of affection showered on you.

Hearing the musical lilt of Brazilian Portuguese all the time gives me a high. Being hugged and kissed by everyone gives my soul reason to smile.

All the women i know here call me their sister, not friend. All the men i know, despite their love, do not call me their sister. Just as well!!

Of course i was Brazilian in a past life.... porque nada posso explicar esta paixão, este amor, este sentimento, esta conexão forte, esta obseção louca pra esta terra maravilhosa.

June 1, 2009

Traffic Light Children

Another street boy whom I knew and was fond of, passes away... leaving me grieved and dismayed.

I don’t know who to blame anymore.

Pradhan, a 12-year old, succumbed to injuries on 6 April 2009, after being hit by a truck at the Moti Bagh flyover in Delhi.

No child should have to die at 12. No child should have to be on the streets.

I couldn’t believe it. I wept. It couldn’t be happening again. Radhakrishna, a boy who sold newspapers at the same traffic light, passed away on 4 October 2005. His death changed my life. And even though I tried, I wasn’t able to change the lives of the street children around me.

Radhakrishna’s untimely passing away shook me deeply. In an attempt to process my grief, I wrote an article on him in the weekly newspaper - Tehelka.* In his memory, I set up a fund for the education of street children around Moti Bagh.

The short piece published by Tehelka received an overwhelming response. Strangers wrote asking how they could help. Strangers, who knew Radhakrishna, reached out to express their solidarity. Strangers around the world who didn’t know Radhakrishna but were moved by our appeal, contributed to the fund.

We managed to raise a lot of money in a very short time. Sujata Madhok, a friend in the neighbourhood, helped me find a place and a teacher, and we started a school programme for the children. But even with the money and the space, it wasn’t easy. Nothing could have prepared us for the complex challenge of doing something that apparently seemed so simple.

First it was convincing their guardians to send the children to school, and that too only twice a week. I couldn’t get more time from them. Even this was a struggle and dropped to once a week. We’d collected money for a room for the children so they didn’t have to spend harsh nights on the streets. My one condition of paying for the room was that the children would attend school.

Despite an overt concurrence, there was an underlying hesitation and probable suspicion. What would we teach them? How would we influence them? The children sold newspapers at the traffic light. Every hour away from the signal meant lost potential earnings for the adults. Even though hours often went by without the sale of one newspaper.

I had no visions of changing the children’s lives. Their deep rooted poverty and arduous family reality was something I could only dream of altering. All I wanted was to give them a short break from the monotony and harshness of street life, for them to play, draw, sing, read and write; to forget their bitter world for a few hours. For them to experience a sip of childhood that life had deprived them of. All I wanted was to make them smile for a few hours a week. And truly, the only time I saw those children smile was in school. That’s why I named the school Muskaan, which means smile in Hindi.

The first time I met Pradhan was at the traffic light. His sister Maya introduced him to me. He had just come from the village. “Kya naam hai aapka?” I asked him. He didn’t answer. “Pradhan” replied Maya, adding, “Pradhan Mantri banega, didi!” He still didn’t say anything but smiled a shy smile and then looked down, almost embarrassed. “Kyu nahin, zaroor banega Pradhan Mantri, hamara Pradhan,” I said. And he coyly looked up again and we both smiled, his light brown eyes revealing an intelligent sparkle.

Pradhan was very good looking. And naughty too. He was the most difficult to take to school. His sister, for reasons unknown to us, refused to attend. She was a strong influence on him, but still we managed to take Pradhan for a few classes. He was bright and a quick learner though he found it difficult to sit in one place for long.

Every Saturday morning, Sujata and I would go to the Moti Bagh flyover and begin the challenging task of rounding up the children from three traffic lights. Pradhan would often run or hide behind the bushes, peering out and laughing when he knew we could see him. There were days when I had to run after him, and there were days when he wouldn’t come to school.

It was all part of the game. For them. For us. The children’s guardians didn’t want all of them to be away from the traffic signal at the same time. Despite my persuasion, I couldn’t win the economics argument. Even though we gave the children food, we couldn’t add to their daily income. And paying the children to study was something we were against.

Most of the children had never held a crayon before, let alone sat on chairs and tables. A high point for them, and for us, was when they could write their names and read their bus number. Every Saturday after dropping them back to the traffic signal after class, I’d be overcome with a mixed feeling. A sadness that they had to return to their grim reality and a tinge of gratitude that at least they had a short break from it.

The girls would often sing Rajasthani wedding and festival songs. The children came from near Alwar, an area steeped in drought and a culture of child marriage. When I asked Sita if she was related to Rekha, she said, “meri nanad hai” (she’s my sister-in-law). I thought they were joking. But no, their marriages had been fixed when they were still in their cribs, and as soon as they were 14–15, they’d be married off.

The children kept going back to their villages, another major disruption in their education. Once after Pradhan returned, I asked him how his trip had been, and Maya told me, “didi, iski to shaadi ho gayee.” Pradhan, only 12, married! No, it couldn’t be true. But then this is India. Where the unreal is the real, however much one may deny it. I tried talking to their family members about this, but it made no difference. They just shrugged and said this was how it was and how it would be. They didn’t believe there was anything wrong. What could we change?

Amidst several hurdles – ill health of the children, resistance from their families, and a fluctuating class size, we somehow kept the school going. Some days were hard but Muskaan still managed to make the children smile. We learnt a little about their rough lives, but they didn’t want to talk about reality. There seemed a desire not to reveal the pain. They wanted to colour dreams on paper and play games. And that’s what we focused on.

But slowly things began to change. It became harder to bring the children to school. There were forces keeping them away. Dynamics that the children were afraid of revealing to us. But we could tell.

And then late one night, I got a call from their guardian telling me the children had been arrested. What followed was a long drama… and weeks of dealing with the police, juvenile justice centres, the Child Welfare Committee, and parents of the children. An NGO in an attempt to “rescue” the children from exploitation, had them picked up and sent to two homes – one for boys and one for girls. The children were distraught, their parents even more so. After a long process of negotiation and assurances from the parents that the children would be taken back to the village and put in school, they were released.

I lost my kids then. They disappeared. Where to, I had no idea. I missed them at the traffic light but felt relieved that they were not spending their days on the harsh streets. I prayed that they were safe and better off than they were here.

Several months passed by…and life went on…. And suddenly one day I saw a few of the children, including Pradhan, back at the traffic light. What happened? Life was too difficult in the village. Their parents were working in Delhi and needed them to be in the city. And the city’s streets were still better than the arid, waterless, foodless life back home. What could one do?

The children got back to selling all sorts of items at the traffic light – flags, flowers, balloons, toys. The police threatened them, cars often hit them. I used to meet them daily, at the traffic light, on my way home from work. They always ran up to meet me, irrespective of whether I bought anything from them or not. By the end of the day when I saw them, their faces were grimy, their energy levels waning, their smiles fragile... But Pradhan would still play games – knock on the car door and hide, and then smile his mischievous smile when he saw me peering out at him. With time, however, the innocent sparkle was gradually replaced by a look of onerous responsibility that didn't belong in a child's eyes.

School became taboo. We couldn’t even talk about it, given the heightened apprehension of the elders after the children’s “pick-up”, even though we had nothing to do with that. There had also been a long time lag, interest in studying had waned, and since only a few of the children had returned, it wasn’t feasible to restart Muskaan.

Their parents said they had no choice. They couldn’t afford for them to go to school, even if it were free. They needed them to make money. Child labour? Perhaps. Exploitation? Perhaps. Injustice? Perhaps. Stolen childhoods? Yes. A failed attempt at change? Yes.

India has the largest number of street children in the world, but there is no official data, nor do comprehensive government schemes exist for them. Most efforts are being undertaken by civil society.

I’d tried to make a small difference. I didn’t succeed. There must be other ways of doing things. But I don’t know what else to do now.

After Pradhan’s death, my children have disappeared again. I don’t know where they are. I haven’t even been able to meet Maya, his sister, to tell her how much I feel her pain.

But I still see Radhakrishna doing salaam, everyday. And I see Pradhan, hiding behind the bushes, laughing, saying “you can’t catch me!” And the truth is, I couldn’t.

My children are not my children. Whose children are they? And how many more boys and girls can we let die on the cruel streets of this megamaniacal metropolis that considers them blots in its “world class city” image?

But children don’t live on streets in “world class” cities. Children don’t die on streets in “world class” cities.

A “world class” city is one where every child has a secure home, a safe school, and a blissful childhood.

Until we get there, let’s pay attention to the children, the children of sun-streaked hair and sun-baked dreams, who live and die on the streets because enough is not being done for them.

* The article on Radhakrishna (Death of a Newspaper Boy) published in Tehelka:

April 29, 2009


It’s very hard writing about someone in the past tense. Especially when you can’t believe he’s gone. Especially when you want to believe he's still around. Which I do. In a different form, in a different realm, in a different way… Smitu Kothari is not with us but he is still with us.

What’s really hard is getting used to the physical absence of someone – the thought that you won’t meet him again, hear him laugh again, give him a hug again, talk to him again, learn from him again. And that’s what makes us all grieve. Because it’s an incredible loss. And the void that Smitu’s absence has created can’t ever be filled. His presence was too great, his spirit too magnanimous. Especially for his family, the grief is intense and inestimable.

At the same time, we’re all trying to celebrate Smitu – the warm, wise, affectionate, gentle, energetic, humorous, committed, dynamic person that he was. The visionary with praxis. The intellectual with action. The one who touched lives – innumerable lives – around the world, in ways too special, too significant, too deep, too profound to recount.

I’m not good at writing obituaries. I don’t want to write an obituary. I just want to pay my tribute to an exceptional human being.

My connection with Smitu goes back to 2000 when we met at a human rights conference in Panchgani. Since then, I grew to know, respect, love and work with Smitu in various capacities. We had several interactions, each one was marked with a warmth that only Smitu was capable of emitting. He had a unique gift of making everyone he was with, feel special. No matter how busy, how preoccupied, how stressed he was, he always had something affectionate to say to you. Something that touched you. Something that made you feel blessed for knowing him.

Yes, that’s true. I feel truly blessed to have known Smitu, to have had the opportunity of being in his world, of having him in mine.

I had a beautiful dream of Smitu recently…. He calls me. Shocked to see his name flashing on my cell phone, I answer, my voice quivering in joyous relief. “Smitu, you’re back?” And he replies in his usual affectionate way, “I haven’t gone anywhere.”

That’s the thought I try to hold in my heart. Smitu hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s still with us.