Sunday, February 22, 2009

Viva Carnaval!

I was in the market looking for a carnival costume. It annoyed me that though this festival is advertised all over the holidaying world, not a single shop sells or rents carnival costumes. They said we have to wear proper carnival costume. Now I don’t like to shop, but when one has to get up and do a thing, I get up and do that thing.
“I want a Carnival costume,” I said firmly to one salesman.
“We don’t sell costumes,” he said dismissively, “as you can see, we sell decorations, tinsel, shiny-shiny and streamers.”
“Why don’t you sell Carnival costumes,” I asked not ready to give up so easily because, you see, when I have to do a thing, I do that thing.
“Please modom, if you do not want to buy tinsel, shiny-shiny or streamers, let other customers come in,” he was looking irritated now and added, “my shop is small,” meaning I was not and I was blocking other customers. I let other customers get in.

I went to another shop with toys and costumes of Spiderman in the window. Ah I will get something here, I thought. Happy, because I do not enjoy shopping.
“I want a Carnival costume,” I said to the disinterested salesgirl. I think salespersons have a built-in antenna when it comes to recognizing shopping infidels.
“We do not have that,” she said, refusing to make eye contact but looking scornfully at my ancient kurta.
“If you have a Spiderman costume, you could be having a carnival costume,” I said imperiously.
“Madam,” she said slowly, now making eye contact. “These are costumes for small-small childrens.”
“Children,” I said.
“Childrens,” she said.

Next stop, a large department store that catered to NRIs and foreigners. Now here the salesmen have a different rule. They take shopping infidels under their wing and exhaust their credit cards. I think here it is a mission with them to sell anything to anyone.
“Yes, and what is Madame looking for?” he said bowing smiling and giving the general impression that if he could, he would even cook lunch for me.
“A Carnival costume,” I said.
“Ah,” he said after a pregnant pause.
“You don’t have any?” I asked.
“Well it depends on what kind of costume you are looking for,” he said.
“Feathers, plumes, sequins, sequined mask, lots of shiny jewellery, and tight fitting, gown or trousers and tops,” I said.
“We have all that,” he said. “It just has to be put together.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to put anything together. I want it all ready to wear. Carnival is already on us. And everyone is supposed to dress up for the Carnival in order for it to be a success.”
“Madame will be on a float?” he asked.
“Madame will be in the crowd,” I said.
“Ah,” he said after another pregnant pause.
“Madame not to worry. I will get everything ready for you,” he said.
He brought gowns of brocade and georgette. Even a velvet one. He brought tights and tunics and even a swim suit. He threw a plain mask over the pile.
“Now our tailor can fix sequins and stones exactly to your design,” he said, gently touching the pile like it was King Tut’s treasure. “We don’t have readymade plumes, but we have feather dusters and even peacock feathers and they can be fashioned into headgear for you. We have silk saris and saris of the finest georgettes. We have stiff brocades, we can make cloaks and stoles and ah how could I have forgotten!” He hit his head and ran off, returning with jeweled sandals, “Footwear! Exactly like what they have in Rio.”
“How much will the outfit cost,” I asked. He pulled a calculator forwards and punched in numbers.
“Should not come to more than Rs 42,000…,” he said.
As I exited the shop with the speed of light, I heard him tell the other salespersons, “That one should not be entertained again.”
Which is why you saw me at the Carnival Parade, sitting on the pavement with coloured powder on my face, a paper hat on my head and blowing a toy whistle.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bells and pink chaddis

There is an ad that sets my teeth on edge. It tells you to ring the doorbell if you hear a woman being beaten or abused. Yes it will work for a couple of minutes, but the man will go back to beating his wife, because she is still frightened and tearful. I personally know of too many women who are beaten or brow-beaten by their husbands. Beating is physical violence, brow-beating is mental violence, but both have one aim in mind – to destroy the woman’s belief in herself.

I know a maidservant whose husband would put his fist into a steel tumbler and punch her in the eye. Why didn’t she leave him, I asked. Then who will do the kanyadan for my daughters when they marry? He died a year later of cirrhosis of the liver and a few years later she got all her daughters married.

I know a middle-class woman who caught her husband in flagrante delicto with their maidservant. She sacked the maid and he began beating her regularly. Why did she take the beatings when she was a solidly built woman and could give him a proper thrashing? I don’t know; I just cannot raise my hand to him, she said.

I know an aristocrat who is pushed around and brow-beaten by her husband who is a respected member of society and has the morals of an alley-cat. Why don’t you throw him out? I can’t, she said, I love him.

An abuser is often extremely charming to outsiders, making it difficult for a woman to complain about emotional abuse. An old friend far from having a happy marriage was being brow-beaten by her husband, continuously and methodically so that now she is a nervous wreck with no family and nowhere to turn if he should throw her out of her marital home. An abuser first isolates his partner from her friends, family and colleagues, then sets out to destroy her sense of self-worth in her own eyes. Finally her self-esteem becomes so eroded that she diminishes what is happening to her. She becomes so psychologically battered and socially isolated that she believes whatever her husband tells her about herself.

Research has it that men who bully their wives are emasculated and see the terrified battered woman as an antidote to that emasculation. The mystery is why does a woman allow this treatment? There are solutions. One wife told me that after he hit her the first and only time, she told her husband with a chilling smile that the kitchen is an armoury by itself, equipped as it is with cleavers, scissors, knives, grinding stones, poisons, boiling oil, boiling water, boiling custards (which one hears inflicts the worst kind of burn because it sticks to the skin and continues cooking) and gas. She told him that he had to eat and he had to sleep, so he would do well to think many times before hitting her again.

The solution is to stop it the first time it happens. If it happens a second time, walk away and start your own life. The trouble with most women is that they feel the power of their love will change the man. Or if they don’t fight back the beating and brow-beating will end. Sadly this does not happen. And when they finally realize it, it is just too late; the pattern has set.

Goa’s police too, including the Women’s Cell, tend to treat wife-beating as a minor domestic spat. It is only when Chief Counsellor of the All India Women’s Conference, Goa Unit, Madhuri Rao’s name is used that they are galvanized into action.

Yet the times they are a-changing for the better. If an internet campaign against the Sri Ram Sene can get 7000 women and men of all ages to join not only in cyberspace but also in the flesh to send a message in the form of cartons full of pink chaddis to the head of this group; chances are the day is not far when battered women will find shelter and support in their immediate neighbourhood. Until then, don’t just ring the bell. Give him hell.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Obama must take tips from Goa

If the United States of America could get their hands on the detailed reports that led to the Governor’s address in the Goa Assembly last week for its first session of the year, Barack Husain Obama’s problems would be solved in a jiffy. Goa Governor Dr S S Sidhu, has proved that Goa bucks world trends. The rest of the world and yes, even the country is battling recession, but Goa shows a 12.1 growth rate projection for the State. Gadzooks, as they say in Shakespearean.

Everyone knows that a governor, especially a newbie, knows little about the workings of the state – leave alone its balance sheet. The Governor’s address is put together by a Government of Goa speech writer and he reads that out in the Assembly. Understandable that the Government of Goa which is run by educationally challenged gentlemen should put together a fairy tale, but that Dr S S Sidhu who has a Doctorate in Economic Development from Kanpur University should read it unedited is strange.

Dr Sidhu hailed the achievements of the government in maintaining law and order in 2008 given the terror threat the state was facing. Now where was the Governor when a middle-aged flower seller was raped and murdered just outside an unmanned bunker on a beach in North Goa? The robberies and daily deaths due to rash driving? Or are murderers and marauders not lawbreakers any more? Mere small fry against phantom terrorists?

He spoke of the growth of agriculture and the control of prices where 24,000 persons availed the benefits? Presuming we have a population of 15 lakh people what about the remaining 14,76000 people who had to dig deep into their pockets to pay for rice, wheat, vegetables, lentils, fruit, eggs, meat and milk whose prices went through the roof in the last one year? And what agriculture is he talking about with huge tracts of agricultural land sold to builders? Unless he meant the yield per square metre of agricultural land – when converted into gated housing projects for the rich and infamous…?

On the industrial front the address insinuated that it is a matter of celebration that exactly 191 persons will benefit from three industrial units that the government has approved for 2008-09. There are 6947 below the poverty line families that will be provided assistance for self employment and shelter. He spoke nothing of Goa’s major import – poverty, where the hopeless and helpless of the nation, come here to be accommodated in our ever-increasing, ever- expanding slums. His address does not say how many of the 6947 families are of Goan origin.

His speech highlighted the progress made in imparting quality education and vocational training. He should have spoken to the principal of a government school in North Goa under the Sarva Shiksa Abhiyan, who said that the graduates who were teaching students English could not even fill out a proper leave application. They asked for “live” and not “leave of absence.”

He has spoken of schemes for restoration and preservation of 51 archaeological monuments, even as the courts have ordered the Porvorim police to frame charges by the Shiv Sena against architect Gerard da Cunha and INTACH for “defacing” the Reis Magos fort.

He highlighted proposals in the health sector for state of the art facilities in cardiac care, but did not mention that state hospitals still cannot provide clean bed-sheets for their patients. He spoke of the screening of newborn babies to detect inborn defects, pity he did not suggest that this screening should also be introduced in the Assembly at Porvorim.

He spoke glowingly of plans to improve the power and infrastructure in the state and was confident that Goa can emerge as a model state in the country. In the country? Goodness gracious, with a 12.1 projected growth rate for Goa this little state is a model for the world.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Degree of desire

Once in a very rare while, one experiences a treat like Slumdog Millionaire. It’s hard to shake off random memories of the film – the editing that takes you racing along with the film through all its twists and turns, the vibrant images of a people on the move, of quickness of pace and wit and the energy and vigour of the vast poor of our country.

They say the middle class and the wealthy are annoyed and uncomfortable that this aspect of India has been dwelt upon in the film; which is puzzling because poverty is a reality we are all aware of. Whether it is street children begging or peddling flowers and magazines at busy streetlights in major cities of the country or rag-pickers here in Goa who we see but do not notice; poverty is a reality but the concept of poverty is quite another thing.

What is poverty to me may not be poverty to you. Slumdog ... reinforced my belief that poverty is relative. If Vijay Mallya or Donald Trump or Ramalinga Raju visited me in my 2-BHK in Panaji they would consider me poor. A person from a slum would think me wealthy, while a man sleeping on a pavement would think himself lucky to afford a small room on rent in a slum. The concept of poverty differs from class to class but the degree of desire for things we don’t have is the same in all of us.

A few years ago, I was walking down 18 June Road and saw this little rag-picker boy, grubby, barefoot, with a huge nylon sack on his back. He stopped at a toy shop next to Gulf Supermarket and was staring at a Barbie Doll with such longing that it made me wince. I thought he was looking at a toy car, but it was the doll he was fascinated with. The hopeless longing on his face made me think, ah poor little fellow, he will never be able to buy that doll. I walked on feeling sorry for him until a few metres further on I saw this absolutely beautiful dark metallic blue sports car, practically hugging the road and purring its way through the traffic. I stood there as I let this wave of hopeless longing wash over me. I knew I would never be able to afford that car and giving myself a mental shake I carried on along 18 June Road. I saw the rag-picker boy walking jauntily ahead of me.

And then it struck me. There was no difference between the little barefoot rag-picker boy with his huge nylon sack and me, a middle aged woman with a leather shoulder bag and uncomfortable shoes. Our degree of desire was the same. Our degree of poverty or purchasing power was relative.

Slumdog ... brought this home to me once more. The children lived with their reality – the slum, as did the wealthier in their apartments and mansions. They laughed and they played with an energy and joy that is typical of children in every slum I have seen. It’s the rich kids who are generally bored and sullen. Poverty does not necessarily mean misery and wealth does not automatically bring happiness.

A news channel interviewed the two slum children who played slum children in the film and they said they would like to live in a proper bungalow in a proper part of town. The question here is, would they be as happy or happier in the aseptic atmosphere of wealth glued to a television screen, or running from tuition to tuition; or would they yearn for the days when they played cricket on a forbidden airstrip and had to flee from policemen, laughing as they out-ran and out-witted them?

Like the millionaire who had bought a cabin by a river in South America, who was trying to convince a fisherman sitting on the river bank to buy a boat to catch more fish. The fisherman asked, “And then, what?”
“Why you make a profit, then you buy more boats and catch more fish,” said the millionaire.
“And then, what?”
“Why you can start a canning factory, buy reefer boats!”
“And then, what?”
“Why, you will be so wealthy you can … you can… you can buy yourself anything you want. I bought this cabin by this river for myself.”
“And then, what?”
“And then, what? You can do anything! Sit on the bank of the river and fish, even!”