Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pittsburgh 6

At first the city was a picture postcard
and all I could see were the kindly
souls in the neighborhood park, feeding
ducks in the afternoon when I went for walks

Later I was asked to be careful
of the shadowy corners where
junkies went for their daily fix
and littered the ground with used needles

Friends warned  me about the crack houses
and random shootings; a young man
shared on a Friday how he was mugged
coming out of a bar near midnight

On East Ohio street and childhood memories
of a fourteen year old shot on the steps
of his forty year old house; it is a
very nice house he added with a smile

To take me back to the old family home
in Kerala, violent too, with uncles squabbling
before it was sold to strangers along with
the well that rippled with every pebble

my first poem and the night before sister’s
wedding when burglars came and an aunt
locked us in a room, to protect us children
she said afterwards, as we huddled on a single bed  

I know now that this city has a bruised soul
like other places I have known and 
despair lurks under the bridge at nights
but in the mornings it can be familiar like home.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

This Whole Hindu Muslim thing

I grew up in the steel town of Jamshedpur. Communal riots among Hindus and Muslims were rampant. M J Akbar has written a book called ‘Riots after riots,’ in which the city of my childhood is documented extensively.

Many of the Muslims from Jamshedpur lived in an area called Dhatkidih and Hindu children were brought up to believe it was a terrible locality. If we probed further as to why it was such a bad place, the lame explanation offered was whenever India lost to Pakistan in cricket or hockey matches, residents of the area burst crackers to celebrate. I don’t know whether that was true but all of us were made to believe it anyway.

The other myth fed to us and in my case it was my older brothers who advocated it, was that Muslims deliberately did not practice family planning and had a lot of children because they wanted to overtake the Hindu population and turn our country into an Islamic one. That according to him was the worst catastrophe the country could ever have.

All the reasons to hate Muslims sounded very compelling. But there was something else present in my life to complicate matters. Our Muslim neighbours.  

We were a family of seven including five children. They were a family of nine and had seven children. The youngest daughter in that family was older to me by some three or four years and we went to the same school. She became some kind of a protector to me and made sure none of the older kids bullied me.

She was also very fond of my mother who read a lot and she would often come home to borrow books. The two families grew close and the kids started hanging out in each other’s homes. Since there were five children in one family and seven in the other, it followed that every kid from either of the two families had a peer in the other.

Winters were special. Our neighbours had a big front yard that they would turn into a make shift badminton court. And during Christmas vacations we would all get together to play and drink ginger tea until late in the night. 

I am sure some of this sounds like sentimental tripe but we looked forward to Biryani and exotic meat dishes they cooked for their two Ids every year and they came over to feast on all the sweets and snacks my mother made during Diwali.   

We must have lived in that house for at least ten years. Long enough for one of the sons from that family to fall madly in love with one of my older sisters. He would stand near the gate around the time she walked back home after school and implore her to look at him in loud whispers.

Sometimes I was asked to accompany her as a chaperon when she went to visit a friend in the street to borrow notes and I would find him standing next to the gate, waiting for her. He spent all day near that gate hoping she would come out of the house.

My sister ignored him but holding her hand firmly, I used to turn to glare and make faces at him. I think my parents found out about his obsessive love for her and she was married off early and moved to another town.  But whenever she visited us, he continued to hang out near that gate and gawk at her, even though she was now accompanied by my brother in law.

I learnt from him my first lessons of misplaced obsession. That unrequited love can surmount all voices of reason and stand steadfast in the face of all kinds of barriers, even if the obstacles were imposed by none other than the object of one’s affection. It was not difficult for me to ever decipher what a Romeo or a Majnu went through, because this guy left such a strong imprint on me.

I found out recently that he died young of chronic renal failure and felt really bad. Even though as a young boy I used to think of him as an evil adversary trying to taint the reputation of my virtuous sister.  I spoke to her about him when I visited her last year and she started laughing.

“The kind of things you remember. What’s wrong with you?” she asked. But I noticed for the rest of the evening she turned pensive.

A few years after my sister was married, my protector in school started talking to me about my older brother all the time. I was scared of my brother because he liked to hit me and had warned me that if he ever found out I was meddling in his affairs, he would make me pay. Being the youngest in a family of five, with two bullying older brothers, I had learnt to hone my survival instincts early in life. I tried to warn her that she should be careful with him as he didn’t like anyone interfering in his business. But she continued to pester me with questions about him.

And then one day she gave me a letter to hand over to him. I was apprehensive but she had saved me from bullies too many times to say no to her request. My relationship with my brother miraculously improved after the letter business started. He actually transformed into a kind human being for all the two years I played the courier between them.

It’s always dangerous to visit the early years of childhood in ripe middle age. One is bound to find it suffused with the romance of nostalgia. But I do tend to go back a lot of late because I am currently researching a book that’s partly set in the town where I grew up. And because I am in a city in an alien land that has a similar history to Jamshedpur, I tend to remember things from my childhood while I am walking, when I am on a bus or just looking out of the window at the snow falling outside.

I think of the neighbours we had and how they accounted for so much of colour and vibrancy my childhood had.  Because of them I could always avoid the bubble of bigotry.  None of the messages of hatred from the macro context ever got to me.

They are also the reason I will never vote for Narendra Modi and his BJP. I get very worked up at the corruption in Congress and don’t think Rahul Gandhi would make for a very efficient Prime Minister. But I know for sure he does not hate Muslims. That’s enough for me. At this stage in my life, I think I have known too many politicians to believe that any of them can change anything.

Changing the world should be left to philosophers and artists. And writers of course!   

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Sampsonia Way Columns

As a Fulbright scholar in Pittsburgh, currently researching a book, I am being hosted by an institution known as 'City of Asylum, Pittsburgh.' This is an amazing institution set up with the primary objective of giving sanctuary to writers under peril in their own countries.

I have had the good fortune of being hosted by them twice for residencies. The first time was in 2007 when I was invited for the International Writers Program, organized by the University of Iowa. I came to Pittsburgh for a short residency at that time and I think I was the first writer to be hosted by City of Asylum who was under no peril in his own country.

My hosts have been good enough to accommodate me for the second time I am in the city to research a book on the impact of globalization on the steel cities of Pittsburgh in the US and Jamshedpur in India on a Fulbright grant. They have also given me an opportunity to write for their online magazine 'Sampsonia Way.'

Sampsonia Way is a unique magazine that publishes columns by writers from all over the world, including Egypt, China, Tibet,Venezuela, El Salvador, Pakistan, Burma, Ethiopia and Cuba. The distinct flavor of these columns is that they all in some way or the other highlight, Freedom of Expression.

It is a great opportunity to do columns for this magazine and I am providing links to the pieces I have written so far, below. They are out every fortnight so please look out for them in The columns by the writers from other countries are really interesting because they tell us as much about the writers as about the countries they come from.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Open Letter to the Joan of Arc of India

Dear Stranger,

Today, it’s a month since you left us. I have never met you. I don’t know your name. I have not even seen any pictures of yours. All I know is that you became a part of my consciousness on a cold December day in a foreign land. When I read about the violence perpetuated on you, my stomach turned and I found bile rising to my throat. I can’t tell you how guilty I feel for reacting like that. How disgraceful that my cowardly writer self had only this pathetic response towards your martyrdom.

I had nightmares and was unable to sleep for a week without your screams reverberating in my ears. When I ventured out to meet others, friends and acquaintances I have made in this country and they asked me about the ‘Delhi Incident,’ I found it difficult to answer them and hurriedly changed the subject. Their questions made me feel guilty. I wondered whether I felt that way because being a guest in another country somehow I don’t feel responsible only for myself but also for the country I am coming from.

A friend asked me on Facebook in the aftermath of your tragedy as to why I had not posted about the incident on my blog. His question angered me. I wanted to ask him whether any homage could capture the anguish that millions of Indians felt about what was done to you. Words after all can only take us that far.

I have grappled with what happened to you ever since I read about the incident that cost you your life. I think I am finally prepared to lay some of those ghosts to rest today. And I want to do that by apologizing to you and also to all the women in my country for what was done to you. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the part I have played in this crime.

Yes, you heard it right. Today I have finally found the courage to take responsibility for my role in the heinous crime committed against you.  Although like I mentioned earlier I have never met you, or seen you or know your name. But I know now,  I started being complicit in the crime from my early teens when as a school boy I decided to succumb to peer pressure and join the boys in teasing the girls, only so that  I could belong.

Even though something about the entire thing felt wrong and I knew that I would not like it if my sisters were targeted with similar teasing, rife with sexual innuendos. But then we were canny enough to have the unspoken pact in our group even in those early years. We would spare the women from each other’s families but as for the rest, it was okay to harass them with lewd cat calls and comments about their anatomy.

A few months ago, I watched a Hollywood film with one of my favorite actors Edward Norton in it. It was called American History X. It is not a great movie but one of the moments from it stayed with me. When the racist protagonist tries to trace the roots of his hatred against African Americans, he goes back to a dining table conversation with his father when he was still in school. His father warns him not to get swayed too much by his African American teacher and allow him to swamp the class with minority propaganda, read African American literature.  The protagonist realizes, albeit a little late, that was the first time the seeds of hatred were sown in him.

I don’t think my father ever told me that eve teasing was okay, but one of my older brothers along with his friends certainly stood at street corners and whistled at girls. I noticed him a couple of times on my way back from school. He was a hero not just for me but also for other boys in the locality. Maybe like me he did what he did because he saw older boys than him turning into heroes by harassing girls. But I don’t want to make excuses either for him or for myself. 

I know today the roots of the violence that was perpetuated on you lies in the early socialization that we men give ourselves. That we like to believe it is okay to harass women with a look or a comment or even that ‘accidental touch’ we force on them when we are young. And because we get away with it, some of us go to the extent of committing the kind of gruesome violence that brooks no limit.

When I read the most evil among your tormentors was the youngest, not yet an adult, as the law defines it, I was shocked and yet not surprised. Being the youngest in the pack, he was seeking affirmation from others. He wanted the respect of men twice as old as him and thought he could get it by showing his might on a helpless you. That has always been the process by which the youngest member gets acceptance in a gang that wants to lead trough violence. This was also true of the eve teasing boy gangs of my childhood. The youngest and the weakest had to commit the most outrageous act to gain acceptance.

 I have also been responsible for laughing at anti women jokes that are cracked sometimes at the so called sophisticated parties and dinners. Sickeningly enough, I have chuckled when a friend chanted Manu’s bile- “Dhol. Pashu, Shudra aur Nari... Saare Taadan ke Adhikari.” None of that was harmless too, much as I deluded myself at that time. Every anti women comment made by respectable men and even more unfortunately by some women has played a part in fostering the hate crime against you.In making the culprits believe they can get away with it. 

I don’t know whether all this makes sense to you where you are right now. But in admitting what I have admitted to you today through this letter, I have also set myself free.

Free to empower my fourteen year old son into thinking that there is nothing like ‘harmless fun’ when it comes to disrespecting a woman. So that he does not imbibe the rotten legacy of believing women like to be teased a little, they like to be harassed a little, and when they say a no, you can turn it into a yes, as long as you persist.

Free to impart that it is not okay to spew abuses that have to do with other people’s mothers and sisters.

Free to share that I have failed in my role as a father if I am unable to communicate to him that women are equal to him and to be a man, the first test for him is to respect women, all women and not merely the women from his family.

In your martyrdom, you united an entire country. You brought the powerful to their knees and made them acknowledge that they had a part to play in the crime that was committed against you.

But I like to think the greatest light you have lit is the one you lit inside men and fathers like me who know now a war has to be waged with ourselves to prevent other heroes like you from sacrificing their lives.     

Rest in Peace.

Vijay Nair

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pittsburgh 5

On a Sunday, unusually warm,
I walk to the neighbourhood cafe
for breakfast, it’s not crowded
but all the newspapers displayed
proudly near the counter on other
focused days are sold out.

Leaving me with a tall cup of coffee
and a curious lightness, a feeling
somewhat familiar...something
that empties and makes me full
at the same time...something that has
to do with the present and the uncertain
past and the days yet to be tasted.

Men and women scattered in different
corners work on crossword, raising their
heads occasionally to ask each other a
doubt, words uniting them in their
confusion, a dog on a leash strolls in,
she sniffs at the legs of my table
her owner shakes his head with a wry smile.

The scornful rain arrives,
in the night to make sure
the aberration does not last,
and to whisper in my unwilling ears
that a warm day in winter  is nothing
more than hope cloaked in desire.   

Vijay Nair