f o u n t a i n PHOTO STORY Journeys inside the general compartment REPORTAGE What’s cooking in UP?
FEBRUARY 2012 VOLUME 1, ISSUE 4 `20
INSIDE A GATED CITY
NEW WORLD February | 2012
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FEBRUARY 2012 VOLUME I, ISSUE 4
Kasturi Villa, Flat No.GB-1, No.8, 2nd Street, Parmeshwari Nagar, Adyar, Chennai-600020 Website: www.fountainink.in E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org EDITOR Saurav Kumar CREATIVE DIRECTOR Deepak DESIGNER Karthikeyan R MARKETING Vidya Arjun PUBLISHER K Venkatraman COVER DESIGN: Deepak Fountain Ink is published by K Venkatraman on behalf of Mahalaxmi Broadcasting and Publishing Company Private Ltd., printed by B. Ashok Kumar at Rathna Offset Printers, 40, Peters Road, Royapettah, Chennai-600014, and published from Tass Villa, Flat No. GD, No. 17, Halls Road, Egmore, Chennai-600008 Editor: Saurav Kumar Total pages: 128+ covers ÂŠAll rights reserved. All disputes subject to the sole jurisdiction of courts and competent forums in Chennai only.
February | 2012
CONSULTING EDITOR G K Rao CONTRIBUTING PHOTO EDITOR Harikrishna Katragadda EDITORIAL & ADVERTISING Kasturi Villa, Flat No. GB-1, No.8, 2nd Street, Parmeshwari Nagar, Adyar, Chennai-600020 For editorial queries mail at email@example.com, for subscriptions at firstname.lastname@example.org and for advertisements at email@example.com
he gates, they are coming up everywhere: inside our cities, at their peripheries, enclosing entire townships of their own. As cities attract more and more migrant professionals—and we are talking of the white-collar kind here—as aspirations grow faster than incomes, the upper middle class and those above it, have created their own “urbania”. Fed up with how our municipalities and corporations struggle to provide even basic amenities, many have found their answers inside gated enclaves and mini-cities that run entirely by private enterprise. In our cover story (“Brave new world”) this month, we examine the gated city culture. Writer Srinath Perur, who lived for a month inside Pune’s Magarpatta City—one of the earliest of its kind, a 430acre township developed by farmers with complete private management of parking lots to cricket tournaments to garbage collection— found it well-managed and incredibly safe, and yet could not escape a sense of unease. In about 9,000 words he tells the stories from the inside: of the 35,000 people living there and the 60,000 who come for work, under the protective gaze of 750 CCTVs, 1,000 security personnel and a dog squad. He says he found a sense of “bareness” about the place, that even the species of trees and shrubs inside were homogenous. For people here, the city outside is an intimidating presence, a place where the ordered efficiency of their lives falls apart. A child who lived here needed psychiatric help to cope with the traffic and noise, when his parents moved cities. We look into the Uttar Pradesh elections and find that while the Dalit-Brahmin alliance, which was a feature of Mayawati’s victory in 2007, may have suffered cracks, political expediency will ensure that it hangs together . We pay tribute to Homai Vyarawalla, the iconic photojournalist, through a 19-year-old unpublished interview where she speaks at length about her life and times. Our other reportage is from Kodagu, Karnataka, where the steady stream of tourists and big plantations have not boosted the local economy to the extent they should have. Last month we introduced gag cartoons in our pages, and these will now regularly feature in the magazine. Our photo story is on the journeys in the general compartment of Indian Railways. Inhumanly packed, short of breathing space, it is the cheapest mode of travelling across the country—a system which is crying for a humane makeover.
Saurav Kumar, Editor firstname.lastname@example.org February | 2012
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R E P O RTAG E The patches are showing The famed Dalit-Brahmin alliance is fraying at the edges in Uttar Pradesh. As polls near, the successful formula that landed Mayawati victory in 2007 is under stress. p / 010
Brave new world What does it mean to live in a self-sufficient gated city? What does it mean if you can walk, shop and work on the inside, in the company of â€œpeople like usâ€? p / 032
The barren Coorg
Kodagu in Karnataka may be a tourist hotpsot and the home to coffee plantations, but these two revenue earners have failed to boost the local economy, where there is a shortage of jobs and money p / 099
EDIT No questions, no answers Why did the media, especially television, fail to ask the tough questions on ownership and editorial independence after the Reliance-Network18 deal? Why were the usually thunderous voices silent on such an important development? p / 005
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What lies behind the recent bravado of the civilian government in Pakistan in taking on the holiest of cows in the country: the army? What really is the import of memogate, and are the Americans just interested bystanders? p / 007
P H OTO S TO RY The general compartment
Snapshots of journeys inside the unreserved, general compartment of the Indian Railways p / 061
E S S AY The sarvajan experiment Have the compulsions of the Dalit-Brahmin alliance dented Maywatiâ€™s core goals? p / 026
Smooth as silk, short on truth The Dirty Picture may be a hit at the box office, but fails to tell Silk Smithaâ€™s real story. p / 080
Q&A Woman who shot history
A hitherto unpublished interview with the iconic photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla, where she speaks at length about her life and times. p /104
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This is with reference to the edit “Comings and goings”. If Rahul Gandhi believed that by forging an alliance with RLD in UP he would turn around the fortune of Congress, then he is living in a fool’s paradise. This is nothing but an act in desperation by Congress. The saddening part is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has chosen to ignore a ministry which is in such horrible shape, by inducting Ajit Singh as the civil aviation minister, or is it again Rahul Gandhi who was behind the decision? Bal Govind, Noida
The most impressive magazine I have ever come across in literary coverage. The genuine concern of several writers on the declining trend of regional publications expressed by them is worrying.
I picked up your magazine in Delhi, was very impressed by its content and format. It is really different from other magazines. Ra Kamal, Delhi
B . G u r u m u r t h y, M a d u r a i
I enjoyed your December, 2011 issue. The article on Hindustani music (“Eternal music, uncertain future”) and the photo story on the Pushkar fair were marvelous. N Krishna Ramana Murthy
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Nothing special to say, just one line: "Fountain ink, something different". Soumya R Biswal. Soumya R Biswal
Questions no one answers
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onight We Need Some Answers, thunders one of television’s best known hosts, glasses flashing righteously as he bangs a metaphorical fist on his desk. The Buck Stops Right Here, trumpets another as she takes on the burden of being the public conscience day after day. Yet a third, fashionably leftist, Faces the Nation every night. All of these people are extremely visible, voluble, articulate, aggressive, argus-eyed and passionate, self-professed champions of the public interest. They are not just purveyors of news but also shape it and, on certain memorable occasions, make it, too. And their influence is legendary. Nothing escapes their eagle eye in the relentless quest to keep all of us, but most particularly the political class, honest. After all, it was television that gave the initial impetus to and then sustained the India Against Corruption campaign led by the sage of Ralegan Siddhi until he retired hurt after catching a chill in Mumbai. It is strange, then, that they should collectively fail to notice the elephant in the room. It stood in plain sight, but to these tireless defenders of the public weal it seemed invisible. Perhaps that is why they said nothing. On January 3, an announcement said Reliance Industries Limited was buying a major stake in TV18’s two main companies. For the uninitiated, Network18, in the words of its own website, “is one of India's leading media companies... includes India's leading business news channels—CNBC-TV18 and CNBC Awaaz, India's premier general news channels—CNNIBN and IBN 7, and IBN-Lokmat, a leading Marathi regional news channel ... the first truly pan-India distribution company and slated to be one of the biggest distribution entities”. Reliance also has a controlling interest in a slew of regional channels under the ETV group of Hyderabad media baron Ch Ramoji Rao. At one stroke, therefore, the deal makes Reliance boss Mukesh Ambani the man who probably is king. Quite effortlessly, he has won himself a new empire and the massive Times group has a competitor worthy of its steel. The comparison with Rupert Murdoch, the man everyone loves to hate, is
premature but it is irresistible. But the real story is not Mukesh Ambani. Rather, it is the loud silence that greeted the acquisition. It was all in the open, and there had been a muted buzz before the announcement. But no one asked for Some Answers, no one Faced the Nation and no one was asked where the Buck Stops. Big media didn’t say the First Word on the subject. That was left to blogs and online media. It’s unlikely to have The Last Word either. Even more notable was the response of that august arbiter of media morality, the chairman of the Press Council, Mr Justice Markandey Katju. He has read the media sermons of rectitude at every opportunity but on the deal he, too, offered only a strong silence as his initial reaction. There’s nothing criminal about the lack of comment, just as there is nothing criminal about the acquisition, but surely it is worth examining in detail. After all, every time there is a bomb blast, the electronic media calls up a raft of experts and grills them for hours about the past, present and future of everything the anchors can think of. Here is a massive new media consolidation, and the first reaction is an absence of reaction. The deal raises many troubling questions about monopolies and control of information across the electronic spectrum, from voice to news to entertainment to mobile communication to Internet. There are questions, too, about the potential for manipulation of news to serve private agendas. So this was a never-before opportunity to examine the state of the media in a frank, forthright and fearless manner, not dismiss it with a bald recital of the facts. The uncomfortable truth is that TV18 now controls some of the channels where these celebrities cast such long shadows, and they may be understandably nervous about saying too much too soon. It’s also possible that they’re wondering how to bite the hand that feeds them without giving offence. But while they work out their positions the intervening silence is deafening. It makes people wonder about things like anticipatory self-censorship, a bending of the truth to suit corporate moods. But none of this applies to Mr Justice Katju. Yet he, too, kept his counsel. Maybe there’s an innocent explanation for this all-round coyness, but it’s hard to dismiss the suspicion that, like the Indian cricket team, they’re flat track bullies who capitulate at the first sight of a sporting track. February | 2012
February | 2012
urmoil seems to be Pakistan's default status these days, usually through bullets, bombs and terrorists. This time, however, the cause is a piece of paper at the centre of the so-called memogate scandal, a memorandum sent last May by Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, to Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. It requests the Obama administration to help avert a military takeover in Pakistan following the Osama bin Laden affair, and to help a civilian takeover of the military apparatus. This is explosive stuff, and the consequences unpredictable. Asking the US to rein in Rawalpindi (army hq) is bad enough, but to seek help to defang the military is next only to blasphemy as a crime. That is how the generals would see it. But there seems to be more than meets the eye, because no Pakistani government can afford to cut out the army. Does the government’s boldness signal a subtle shift in the balance that is not immediately apparent, given recent American allergy to the military after Osama—wanted dead or alive, as former president George W Bush famously put it—was found hiding in Abbottabad? The crisis has claimed its first high level victim in Haqqani, who has resigned. But there’s a long way to go before it blows over. For one thing, the court has also got involved. It’s a pincer movement. The Supreme Court has scrapped the National Reconciliation Ordinance which gave an amnesty to President Asif Ali Zardari and friends in old graft cases. It has ordered the cases reopened, an order Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's government has so far defied. The court has also opened a broader inquiry into the origins, credibility and purpose of the memo, and fired a broadside against Gilani over some allegedly dubious appointments. So the government is besieged on two fronts. Gilani, after some initial resistance, has reached out to the army realising, perhaps, that you can only go so far. But Abbottabad has changed some equations. America’s anger and dismay have been clear for all to see ever since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden last May. The army is in the dog-
house with the Emir in Washington. Secondly, Congress, equally outraged, has pointedly demanded that US aid should henceforth be monitored more strictly. It’s quite likely that the signals have gone out, especially as the International Security Assistance Force is to leave in two years. The army may not be shown the same indulgence in future. Indeed, its role may be under review in Washington. So Gilani’s recent sacking of defence secretary Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a retired Lt General, for “gross misconduct” may be actuated by such calculations. To be sure, he didn’t have much choice because Lodhi told the Supreme Court that the army and Inter-Services Intelligence were outside the operational control of the government. In other words, they were answerable to no one, an assertion that makes nonsense of the Constitution and hands the country over to the two institutions that have brought Pakistan close to breakdown. The only thing worse than a soldier lording it over the civilians is an inept soldier lording it over them. Not only has the military failed to keep the enemy in check but one part has nurtured the enemy that another has had to fight. The generals have shown themselves manifestly unfit to run their own backyard, much less the whole country. Is anyone paying attention, however? The Opposition, as in India, seems more intent on cashing in on the government’s embarrassments. They seem unable to see beyond the moment, even Nawaz Sharif, who knows all about military promises and pretensions. But there is room for optimism, because the military is not popular right now. People don’t often articulate it but they couldn’t have failed to note its double-dealing—making outraged noises over American high-handedness and then failing to prevent drone attacks that have killed hundreds are unlikely to endear the soldier to the public. It indicates that the ruler (the real, not the nominal one) is not master in his own house, but hostage to the agenda of a hated outsider. The dross is beginning to show under the gilt, especially after the sometimes comic disgrace that was the Pervez Musharraf administration. It is this sentiment of disenchantment that offers hope, that and a rejuvenated Supreme Court's public declaration that it is sworn to protect the Constitution. Casting off the army’s shadow will be a superhuman task, but the conditions are fast ripening for it. February | 2012
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f o u n t a i n
ESSAY Roger Federer’s fading magic REPORTAGE The stone-pelter’s Srinagar PHOTO STORY The mystic musicians of West Bengal
DECEMBER 2011 VOLUME 1, ISSUE 1 `20
WE’RE THE YOUNG ONES
NEW JOURNALISM. EVERY MONTH. February | 2012
The patches Five years catapulted BSP to power in 2007, is diminished. Dalits, This tapestry which was stitched in 2007, may February | 2012 TEXT BY SHIVAM VIJ AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SALMAN USMANI
are showing later, the euphoria of the Dalit-Brahmin alliance that especially, feel the deal has favoured the Brahmins more. be frayed but still holds the key in 2012. February |now, 2012
February | 2012
n an inner lane in Lucknow where Kayasthas dominate a residential colony, Election Commission officials are walking up and down looking for hoardings and banners of political parties and ordering them to be taken down. The indigo graffiti of the Bahujan Samaj party on the walls is not on their agenda yet. The graffiti is for the candidate of the constituency, a Muslim better known as “Pandit ji”, and who writes that useful epithet in brackets after his name. Welcome to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections, 2012. It’s a spectacle without a spectacle: the Election Commission’s total crackdown is matched by the political parties’ strange lack of enthusiasm. They have all been uncharacteristically late in declaring their candidates. Travelling in January 2007, the festival of election was in the air even though the election was three months away. This time, everyone was taken aback by the Election Commission bringing forward the election from April to February, and voters are still making up their mind. The tepid mood is shared by Hriday Narain Dixit, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader. This is the first time after several elections that he won’t be contesting. Dixit lives in the OCR building, famous for housing legislators, and infamous for suicides from its higher floors. In a modest house he welcomes us, apologetic about the shortage of chairs. He is himself spread on a couch, behind him a BJP banner and the rest of the room adorned with three new calendars in which Hindu gods and goddesses occupy more space than the list of the months ahead. I ask him what the BJP’s chances look like. Before he can
answer, he gets a phone call. He tells the caller that no party has an absolute hold among the Other Backward Classes, the peasant castes—not even Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP). His hold on his fellow Yadavs has declined, he says, adding that be it Bharat or Misr, India or Egypt, a community’s political character changes. Social mobility gives it independence and reduces the need to rally around a leader of their own community. “This is the principle of society, from what I have read,” he says. “See Brahmins, for example,” he continues on the phone. “Even a poor Brahmin is high class by virtue of his caste. He does not need a leader. He is already number one. How can he consider anyone else a leader?” As a Brahmin leader himself, he would know. But he has more examples. “You live in Delhi,” he addresses the caller, “you won’t need to call an MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly]. You will call local authorities. You don’t need your MLA’s help to get someone admitted to a hospital. In the districts people need their MLA to do that.” He continues for some more time in the same vein about “backward empowerment”, ending with the explanation that he does not think of himself as a leader but as a student. The stack of books next to him is proof. His theory about Brahmins not being in need of a leader continues when I ask him if the Brahmins are as enthusiastic about the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) this time as they were in 2007. From 2005 to 2007, the BSP, a DalitFebruary | 2012
led party, had made an unlikely alliance with Brahmins, organising “Brahmin sammelans” or gatherings, giving tickets to 89 Brahmins out of 406 constituencies. An astounding 46 of them won. DalitBrahmin “bhaichara” or brotherhood committees had gone around convincing both groups of the alliance. The alliance succeeded in displacing the Yadavled Samajwadi Party. It was a marriage of convenience that suited both Dalits and Brahmins, as both of them say they are politically neglected and rendered powerless under the Samajwadi Party’s rule. The BSP’s anti-Brahmin slogans were replaced by “Haathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai”. The elephant, electoral symbol of the BSP because of the animal’s significance in Buddhism, was now re-interpreted as the elephant-headed Hindu icon, Ganesh, and extended to stand for the trinity of Hindu gods, Brahma the creator, Vishnu as preserver and Mahesh or Shiva as destroyer. The BSP’s mantra for five years in power was “Sarvajan Hitaye, Sarvajan Sukhaye”, Sanskrit words that meant they were for everyone’s interests and everyone’s welfare. But Dixit says Brahmins have not had a good experience with the BSP: they did not get to “dominate” the BSP government the way they would have liked to. “Satish Chandra Mishra is my friend,” he says, referring to the prominent Lucknow lawyer who became the BSP’s Brahmin face in 2007. “He is like a big bureaucrat rather than a political leader. He is a prisoner of his political master. He is not allowed to address the public or meet too many people. I know this is
not his nature, only Mayawati’s orders.” That is true, but only since 2009, when the BSP won only 20 of 80 Uttar Pradesh seats in the Lok Sabha, against its expectation of 60 plus. Until May 13, 2009, when the Lok Sabha results came out, Mayawati would almost never be seen without a much taller Satish Chandra Mishra behind her. She would often let him answer questions addressed to her in press conferences, and he would address rallies after she had done so, making the point that the BSP was not against the upper castes. A key reason for the poor performance in 2009 was that many Dalits, especially Dalits of sub-castes other than Mayawati’s own Jatavs, did not turn up at the polling booth, or worse, voted for other parties, especially the Congress. This is borne out both by exit poll surveys and by what BSP workers in villages say. The party cadre told Mayawati that Dalits felt the BSP was being taken over by Brahmins; their concerns were not being heard. Hriday Narain Dixit did not join the 2007 wave of Brahmins shifting to the BSP. Of the seven elections he has contested from Parva constituency in Unnao district, next to Lucknow, he won the first four and lost the last three. Despite arguing that Brahmins are unhappy with the BSP, he refutes the idea that Brahmins “feel” collectively. In his constituency, not more than 30 per cent Brahmins ever voted for him, he says. He is not wrong, those from his constituency say. Dixit entered politics through the socialist movement, though he bluntly deFebruary | 2012
nies ever having been part of it. He was always a Sanghi, he says, referring to the BJP’s backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. He quotes not the socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia but the Jan Sangh leader Deen Dayal Upadhyay, who he says refused to be identified as a “Brahmin leader”. Now a member of the upper house, Dixit reads 4-5 hours a day, including Shakespeare and Shelley, writes columns for leading Hindi newspapers, where he explains to their young readers what “fantasy” means by quoting Sigmund Freud. “Even when I go among the people, I study them,” he says. Dixit’s worldview is symptomatic of the BJP, which emerged as the main rival force to the Congress in both UP and nationwide, the early ’90s, thanks to its “Ram Janambhoomi movement”. That movement, in the backdrop of the Mandal movement, managed to woo UP’s Brahmins away from the Congress. Having failed to foresee that Mandal was going to be a long-distance runner and Masjid a short-distance one, the BJP in UP today is a party in denial. An internal presentation of the party says they are targeting only 140-odd seats, mostly urban ones. Even in these, their hope lies in getting the RSS and BJP workers to motivate their core upper caste voters, in individual candidates who are locally powerful, and in the alleged HindutvaOBC charisma of Uma Bharti, who the RSS forced the BJP to welcome back in the party, much to the dismay of its Hindutva poster-boy, Narendra Modi of Gujarat.
A cut-out of Congress’s Ajay Kapoor surrounded by his trophies and mementoes greets visitors at his Kanpur house
A tale of contradictions
Unnao is an hour’s drive from Lucknow, made longer by the bad roads and traffic snarls. A district with a rather large concentration of Brahmins, its urban centre is a small town whose youth gain an education to migrate to neighbouring Lucknow or Kanpur in search of jobs. In the Vidhan Sabha seat of this main town is an exciting contest whose result will be keenly watched. On one side is sitting MLA Deepak Kumar of the Samajwadi Party, and on the other side Namrata Pathak of the BSP, a new entrant. Even though the BSP’s Brahmin candidate here stood third in 2007, this time it is the Congress and the BJP who locals say are vying for that position. They will, however, still be crucial in determining the winner, because whose votes they will “cut” will be important. Kumar is from the Mallah OBC community, the boatmen’s caste, and Pathak is a Brahmin, wife of senior BSP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Brijesh Pathak. It may February | 2012
help Pathak’s chances that delimitation is said to have reduced some of Kumar’s OBC votes. Both Kumar and Brijesh Pathak have been Lok Sabha MPs from Unnao. The current MP from Unnao, though, is a former Reliance Industries Limited executive Annu Tandon, because of the welfare work done by her NGO for years. That election, caste was not in the picture. For Brijesh Pathak, this election is a gamble. A counter to Satish Chandra Mishra in the BSP’s Brahmin camp, if Pathak can’t ensure his wife’s victory this election he could become dispensable for a ruthless Mayawati. He realises as much, and is working 16 hours a day to impress every voter. His multi-storeyed house has turned into an election campaign office. A large image of Gautam Buddha welcomes you as you enter. He’s upstairs, the men say, and after some dithering, let you go. In a large hall Pathak is addressing the mostly Dalit “sector prab-
haris” of the BSP; every “sector” has eight-ten polling booths to take care of. The meeting is about to get over, and Pathak is saying that the Election Commission has banned party flags and banners only on public property and others’ private property. Those who want to place one on their rooftops are free to do so. Pathak agrees to speak to me for five minutes, for which he takes me into a smaller room. After accusing various pre-poll survey organisations of being biased and corrupt and counting how many times they got their predictions right, he predicts the BSP will again win over 200 seats. He has little time he says, will I please ask him anything specific and important if I must? I ask him what Brahmins have gained from the “Sarvajan” alliance, if they are happy with the experience? “In the history of independent India,” he says, “it was the first time that Brahmins got so much respect and representation in power.” He knows the numbers by heart: “Forty-five Brahmin MLAs in one party alone, unprecedented! Twelve to four-
BJP leader Hriday Narain Dixit reads 4-5 hours a day, including Shakespeare and Shelley, writes columns for Hindi newspapers, where he explains to readers what “fantasy” means by quoting Sigmund Freud February | 2012
teen of them made ministers, 50 per cent DMs and SPs [District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police] were Brahmin! Chief secretary, advocate general, all Brahmin! He would have gone on if he had time, he knows the answer like a Sanskrit shloka. Historically, he says, perpetuating a myth the BSP spread to make the alliance possible, Brahmins and Dalits have never been adversaries. But he was wooing others too; he claimed the Lodhi vote, a peasant community, was on his target, and then set off for a gurudwara. It was the birth anniversary of Patnaborn Guru Gobind Singh, tenth guru of the Sikhs. He is welcomed warmly, goes up to the sanctum sanctorum, sits
THE SARVAJAN BOND: A Brahmin and Dalit worker of the BSP stand together with some reluctance for a picture in Gangauli village, Unnao. Prabhat Pandey on the left, Ram Khilawan on the right
amidst the city’s Sikhs in the prayer hall, agrees to exchange his ordinary handkerchief for a fancier one to cover his head, folds his head and looks solemn. Symbolism is worth a thousand words; politics is performance art. It is not only the Congress party that is looking to consolidate micro-vote banks this election. In the first past the post system, a candidate could win or lose by a few hundred votes. In a multi-polar contest like this one, the battle is intense. Sikhs coming out of the gurdwara claimed Unnao had as many as a thousand Sikh votes, and if Pathak’s friend Pankaj Gupta did not contest from the BJP, he would win easily. The word on the street was that Pathak had managed to persuade Gupta to not contest; Gupta claimed on the phone that he still hoped to get the ticket. In all these conversations, nobody referred to the candidate as Namrata Pathak; it was for all purFebruary | 2012
poses Brijesh’s election. Deepak Kumar of the SP was equally busy in the campaigning, unable to find time to meet us, away in villages, telling his OBC voters to come out and vote and not be complacent. To test Pathak’s claims that the DalitBrahmin alliance is intact and will ensure his wife wins, we go to Gangauli village 18 km away. The BSP’s man here, a former panchayat pradhan, is Ram Khilawan. He runs a PDS shop; to see one that is open and functioning in a village, the smell of oil in the air, is a pleasant sight. Men and women crowd around with ration cards. Some more walk in to find out why we have come. I ask Ram Khilawan that now that he has his party’s government in the state, what has it done for this Dalit-Brahmin dominated village? “For the first time since independence,” he says, “a cement road came
into the village.” One of the bystanders interrupts: “And sir you just came on that road, you must have seen what a great road they made!” Ram Khilwan smiles sheepishly, as though he had been shut up. I prod him to list more and he mentions another first for the village: electricity poles and wires reached this village. The bystander interrupts again: “That is not to say we got electricity! The wires are not aluminium as they should be, they are steel! All this showcase development only for corruption!” Ram Khilawan has been silenced again. I ask the bystander if he is Dalit, too, and he says yes. Ram Khilawan chuckles and the other Dalits around break their silence: he is Brahmin. His name is Sushil Kumar Tiwari and he is agent of the Life Insurance Corporation of India. I ask Ram Khilawan about the DalitBrahmin alliance, and Tiwari interrupts again. This time I insist I want to hear Ram Khilawan first. Khilawan bluntly says what he feels: “Under Sarvajan Samaj it is the Dalits who have suffered the most,” he says, “Dalits have not been able to make their voice buland (strong). If a Dalit was beaten up, Pathak ji would side with the upper caste oppressor. As for corruption, it may have increased but at least work gets done.” I ask Khilawan if he could tell me about specific instances of such violence against Dalits where Pathak came to the aid of the upper caste oppressor. He is silent, the Dalits and Brahmins around both voice their opposition about getting into specifics. Sushil Kumar Tiwari must have his February | 2012
word now. He says that Sarvajan Samaj has helped only the rich Brahmins get richer, it didn’t help people like him. Overall, everyone agrees that no one is left enthused about the alliance. “There isn’t the aandhi, the windstorm of 2007 this election,” Khilawan says, “The BSP’s graph has fallen. Neither Brahmin nor Dalit may work en bloc the way it did in 2007.” And yet when I question them all on who they will vote for, they are clear: the contest is between Mayawati and Mulayam, and the latter is completely inimical to their interests, so Mayawati it will be. “Majboori ka naam haathi,” says Tiwari. Compulsion, thy name is elephant, the BSP’s symbol. Ram Khilawan, part of the BSP’s famous cadre that motivates people and brings them out to the polling booth, checking on each one of they voted, is the reason why the Dalit vote will be delivered to the elephant. Similarly, the BSP also has its Brahmin cadres, created as a parallel force that is made to work in tandem with the Dalit cadre through “brotherhood” committees. The party’s Brahmin man in this village is Prabhat Pandey, whose large double-story house, land, tractors and cattle, all sit with an odd comfort just a minute’s walk away from Ram Khilawan’s humble abode. His brother multiplies the family wealth by buying and selling land. “I am only a farmer,” says Pandey, sitting before his tractors in his courtyard. It is this class of the trading Brahmin that was most upset with the Samajwadi party rule, affected by both the bad law and order situation, and the favourit-
ism to the peasant castes. “There haven’t been any special benefits for Brahmins in this government,” says Pandey, “but you know, Brahmins are paer se kamzor, weak in the feet.” He explains the metaphor: you can persuade a Brahmin by touching his feet. In other words, the most important benefit the Brahmins took away from the BSP government was the “respect” they “deserve”. Only some Brahmin families and clans have benefited from the alliance, says a relative of his. Satish Chandra Mishra’s nepotism, his penchant for getting every distant relative a government post, has been a matter of ridicule. This is true even of others, and when Pandey tells me Namrata Pathak will visit this village tomorrow, that’s his hint: why are the BSP’s Brahmin politicians multiplying within families? Nevertheless, Pandey feels it’s going to be a close contest, and the winner’s margin will be less than 5,000 votes. I ask Pandey and Khilawan if they’d like to pose for a photograph together, the BSP’s foot-soldiers in Gangauli. They do so hesitatingly, their body language speaking volumes about a political alliance unable to bridge a social gap. Meanwhile, the BJP announced its list of candidates a few days later. Pankaj Gupta is contesting Parva.
If Unnao is a rural expanse crying for development, neighbouring Kanpur is an urban disaster, once a great industrial town, Manchester of the East, but today best known for being one of India’s most February | 2012
polluted cities. Cities like Kanpur, with their history of communal violence and high concentration of Hindu uppercaste middle classes, are amongst the BJP’s last bastions. And yet, of the ten constituencies here, the BJP won only four last time, the Congress and Samajwadi Party two each and the BSP one. The two-time sitting Member of Parliament is the hard-working Shri Prakash Jaiswal who makes himself accessible to people and manages local alliances and “understanding” with local leaders of other parties. The BSP’s Dalit-Brahmin formula didn’t work any wonders here last time. In 2007, I met Sarvesh Shukla, locally known as “Bum Bum”, once a student leader in Kanpur university with a dabang (strongman) image, that was his big chance in politics. Back then, to convince me of his chances, he showed off the support he was getting from Brahmins in the Generalganj seat, a BJP stronghold. He introduced me to an old RSS leader as his relative, R N Bajpai, white sage-like beard and tilak on the forehead. Bajpai had told me frankly and bluntly that the Brahmins were shifting to the BSP because the BJP’s Thakurs and Baniyas had sidelined its Brahmin leaders after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s retirement, and the Congress was nowhere in the picture. That is how strongly Bajpai, a Sanghi of 60 years, had felt about the UP Brahmin’s political alienation. But this time the Congress is in the picture, the BSP’s Brahmin alliance didn’t do well in Kanpur and there is no “wave” for any party to jump into. I meet Sarvesh again, who tells me that
old Bajpai has passed away, that he was no relative of Shukla, who did not get a ticket from any party, having been sacked from the BSP. That happened, he claims, because he put up too many posters of himself in Kanpur, something Mayawati and her cadres don’t appreciate as it threatens her supremacy as the sole face of the party. Shukla repeats the same complaint that many Brahmin politicians seem to have with the BSP: the domination and nepotism of Satish Chandra Mishra, the sacking of Brahmin ministers and MLAs and denying sitting MLAs tickets. Brahmins, Shukla says, are a confused lot. Delimitation has meant shifting of vote banks from one seat to another. Old politicians have jumped constituencies and new ones have sprung up to exploit new caste and religion combinations and try their hand at the game of numbers. The most Brahmin-dominated seat is called Kidwai Nagar. The contest here, unlike most of UP, is between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress’ Ajay Kapoor is a stalwart, a two-time victor despite his rivalry with the Congress’ Kanpur MP Shri Prakash Jaiswal. BJP’s Viveksheel Shukla is trying to displace Kapoor. Kapoor is a Hindu Punjabi Khatri, a well-to-do local businessman, the sort of person usually identified with the BJP. Viveksheel Shukla is a gentle Brahmin of the sort who fits better with the Congress. If both seem to be in the wrong party, it is because Kapoor’s hold in the area is regardless of his party. In the basement of his multi-storied building are parked two ambulances with his February | 2012
name on them; on the first floor is an office where people with problems of any kind show up for help, and on the third floor is the campaign office. Kapoor is not in town and some say he is in Delhi. Others say he is in Mumbai, but his large cut-outs don’t let his absence be felt, even though they reduce his girth by several inches. There are so many trophies and metal mementos all around you’d think he’s felicitated once a day. In the office of his campaign manager, Shoaib Khan, hangs a calendar printed predictably by Kapoor Electricals. When I am introduced to Khan as a visitor from Delhi, he wonders if I am “the SMS guy”. Khan tells me how it’s an easier election for them because delimitation has halved the number of voters. A phone call interrupts the conversation. “Why do you have to put a flag on your car for booth committee duty?” he asks agitatedly on the phone. “We’ll have to tell the Election Commission about it and add the car expenses to the election budget. If we can move without a flag why can’t you?” Khan returns to tell me how they have been mobilising people for some months now. A great show was in October, when they held a cricket tournament called the Kanpur South Premier League (KSPL). 16 teams played, twelve of them fall in Kidwai Nagar. The winner, Kidwai Nagar Lions, won a Tata Nano. The tournament’s “ambassador” was a famous local resident: the enormously popular Hindi stand-up comic and TV celebrity Raju Srivastava. The BJP’s Viveksheel Shukla sneers at
Congress Office, Lucknow
Kapoor’s star power. “He is not in town because he has gone to Mumbai to hire B-grade actors and rejected models for his campaign,” says Shukla. As we drive in Shukla’s SUV with him on the front seat, it is clear they are up against a wall. Their campaign is focusing on attacking Kapoor for his wealth, his hiring of stars, even his girth. “In eight years as legislator he has accumulated so much, from 55 kg to 200kg!” Shukla says, “He is trying yoga these days!” But Shukla knows his real hope lies in the slight increase of the percentage of Brahmins in the seat thanks to delimitation. Will the 30 per cent Brahmins of Kidwai Nagar vote for their popular leader or one of their own? Add Uma Bharti and her Hindutva-OBC appeal to that. Shukla has been a political confidante of Bharti, leaves the BJP when she does, and his is the only case, he says, for which Bharti exercised her veto to make sure he gets a ticket. To be sure, Viveksheel Shukla doesn’t February | 2012
have to play the Brahmin card. His surname does it for him. On a crossing, he rolls down the window pane to greet someone on a bike. The young man introduces himself with a Brahmin name, drops the name of his well-known uncle, and says that he’s a worker of the Samajwadi Party. “I am a Brahmin,” the young man on the bike says, “on this seat my support is for you.” Shukla invites him to join the BJP but he declines.
Vote banks again
The example of Ajay Kapoor is typical of the Congress focus on choosing and cultivating popular “winnable” candidates. The Congress is said to have used independent surveys to find out the popularity of candidates. That does not mean that the Congress is not doing what is popularly known as “caste politics”. On the contrary, the Congress has come up with a Nitish Kumar-like caste strategy to make an alliance between all those
small and big castes who feel left out in the big SP vs. BSP binary. Until the rise of Mandal and Masjid that wiped the Congress out in UP, its vote base was a coalition of extremes and Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins. That is to a great extent the formula that the BSP turned on its head. Just before the 2007 elections, Rahul Gandhi was looking around for a caste formula, but there was none. In 2009, the Congress did not win because of any caste formula even though it had started wooing Dalits. Rahul Gandhi’s team realised that the Jatav Dalits, who are more than twothirds of all Dalit voters in UP, are tied to the BSP like a horse and carriage. So began the Congress efforts to woo the non-Jatav Dalits, particularly Pasis in central UP. The Congress wanted to revive its old formula. However, thanks to the social scientists who advise the Congress and also double up as political commentators on TV and op-ed pages of newspapers, the Congress’ Nitish Kumar-like strategy has a big surprise. For all the tug of war between the BSP and the Congress over the last five years, for all of Rahul Gandhi’s targeting of Mayawati and her Dalit vote, the Congress is really out to get the Samajwadi Party. The Congress sees a bigger opportunity in the SP’s Muslim and non-Yadav OBC vote than in the BSP’s Dalit vote. With such plans, the Congress office in Lucknow has hope in the air. Unlike 2007 when it looked abandoned, it is now full of politicians and candidates and journalists milling around. In the media room, spokesperson Ram Kumar February | 2012
Bhargava is in a hurry. He agrees to sit down and talk for five minutes, but his attention is more at an assistant who is not putting enough roses into a bouquet. He gives me the usual Congress spiel about how the Congress hasn’t been tried by UP’s voters for 22 years, that Rahul Gandhi is asking for a chance now. That sounds like the 2009 Lok Sabha strategy, when an assistant comes in with the latest table on caste-wise break-up of the first four phases. Of the 271 seats declared by then, 13.28 per cent have been given to Brahmins, a few per cent more than their population, 14.02 per cent for Thakurs, who despite their enmity with Brahmins are also old loyalists that the Congress wants to wean away from the Samajwadi Party. Some 5.53 are Vaish, usually with the BJP, as are the Kayasthas, who have been given 1.84 per cent seats. The 15.86 per cent seats for Muslims are less than their population, and the 25.46 per cent for “SC” are more than their population, but these percentages may change when all 406 seats are announced. The real story, however, is visible even in this list: 15.49 per cent “BC” or Backward Castes and 11.80 per cent “OBC”. The Congress is not only playing well, it is playing for the long-term, interested more in increasing vote share than seats, establishing itself as a serious player in the evolving political process of Uttar Pradesh. Although this list is for the local media, Bhargava is apologetic that I got to see it. “The Congress does not believe in caste politics he says,” and then mutters something about the compulsions
Durjan Ram, BSP’s 'sector prabhari’ in Chitrakoot has experienced the Saravjan experiment from close quarters. When a Brahmin sarpanch tried to take away his land by force, his complaint of to the higher-ups in the party saved it
of contemporary Uttar Pradesh politics. I ask him why the Congress president in Uttar Pradesh, their leader in the assembly, the Youth Congress leader, and he himself – why are all top Congress leaders in Uttar Pradesh Brahmins. He names all the insignificant nonBrahmin names, but he’s right about Beni Prasad Verma, who’s influential in crafting the Congress OBC strategy. Will a Brahmin-dominated Congress really be able to manoeuvre its way through Uttar Pradesh’s intricate caste politics in the near future? The results of this election could determine that.
Chitrakoot district is only 277 km from Lucknow, but it feels like thousands of kilometres. In the heart of the neglected, barren Bundelkhand region, it shares a border with Madhya Pradesh. The Chitrakoot forests where Ram and Sita went into exile for 14 years are divided across this state border. Although the politics across this border is a world apart, the society is not. February | 2012
Bundelkhand is more Brahmin-dominated than the rest of UP. It has only 22 seats in the assembly from seven districts, but they are closely contested. Bundelkhand is also where a lot of the tussle between the Congress and the BSP, over development funds and statehood and Dalit welfare and so on, has taken place. The fight this election, however, remains between the BSP and the SP. For most of the 2000s, the small class of rich people in most of Bundelkhand— the landed feudal, the corrupt public servant, the prosperous businessman —had a peculiar problem. They couldn’t buy cars even if they had the money. The presence of a dacoit forced them to hide their wealth. The dacoit was Dadua, a Kurmi Robin Hood who was India’s second biggest dacoit after Veerappan in recent memory. A young Dadua had become a dacoit because of Brahmin violence, and made a natural ally for Yadavs and other OBCs. His word would decide the election winner in a few seats, and the Samajwadi Party would do well.
Then he fell out with the Samajwadis and allied with the BSP. The Kurmi-Dalit alliance was a disaster for Dalits, who faced unprecedented violence from Kurmis; Dadua’s diktat was the law of the land. This came to such a pass by 2007 the BSP would have done badly in the election, except that by this time the BSP was doing a state-wide “Sarvajan Samaj” alliance. In numbers, there’s no combination that could defeat the Dalit-Brahmin alliance in most seats. In 2007, the BSP won 15 of 22 seats, and less than three months after coming to power, had Dadua killed in an “encounter” by the elite Special Task Force. It was the biggest trophy amid a series of encounters and arrests that controlled organised crime, a big reason why people voted out the SP in 2007. Chitrakoot town is a constituency called Karvi. The MLA who won here in 2007, an old Sanghi and BJP politician who switched to the BSP, was Dinesh Mishra. He took credit for saving Dalits and Brahmins alike from Dadua’s terror. Yet in 2009, when his elder brother Bhairon Prasad Mishra stood for the Lok Sabha from Chitrakoot-Banda, he did not get many Brahmin votes and many Dalit votes. Brahmins were unhappy with the prospect of so much power concentrated in one family, a refrain you hear in Chitrakoot and elsewhere all the time about the BSP’s Brahmins. The Dalits were unhappy that while they were getting no attention from Mayawati and her government, the Brahmins were overtaking the Kurmis as their oppressors. As a result, the winFebruary | 2012
ner was R K Patel, a Kurmi, of the Samajwadi Party. Bhairon’s explanation of the loss is that Brahmin votes got divided between him and the BJP’s Brahmin candidate. In 2009, in a village 20 km from Karvi, I had met a BSP “sector prabhari”, Durjan Ram. He had told me how he was a daily wage labourer with no land, and since nobody had any land rights he, like every other Dalit around, paid the Brahmin sarpanch a bribe of `2,000 to get some land next in front of his house, to use as a courtyard and carve out a small patch for subsistence farming—to grow a few vegetables that he won’t be able to afford to buy from the market. But before the 2009 elections, the Brahmin sarpanch was denying he had been given the bribe, and claimed the land as his own. This led to violence, death threats and eviction. The Brahmin sarpanch was a relative of the Mishras, and Durjan Ram told them he would complain to the higher-ups in the party. The harassment stopped, but a court case is ongoing. When Bhairon Prasad lost in 2009, it sealed Dinesh Mishra’s fate too. Dinesh has not been given a ticket from this seat this time; in fact only one of 15 Bundelkhand BSP MLAs has been given a ticket. More than 50 per cent sitting MLAs, even some prominent ministers, have not been give tickets by the BSP across the state. The reason for this, as in Karvi, is that the BSP’s core Dalit voters feel that Dalit interests were compromised by these men who felt they did not owe anything to their Dalit voters, treating them as
the cattle that Mayawati’s cadres would bring to the polling booth anyway. That is what has happened to Dinesh Mishra’s ticket, too. He is not in town; he’s in Lucknow, making last-ditch efforts to convince the party to let him contest. At his house, Bhairon Prasad Mishra sits beneath a portrait of the Brahmin icon Parshuram, seen as a symbol of Brahmin violence by all other castes. “We are saying do a survey and you will find my brother can still win,” Bhairon says. Even so, the BSP can’t give him a ticket and alienate its core voters. Bhairon complains about Brahmins having been given short-shrift by Mayawati, and in the villages he says, upper castes were harassed, with Dalits filing false cases under the strict SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, and that they misused their power and so on. I ask him if Dalits also got something in return that was in his view not unfair? He says they won some respect from Brahmins in day-to-day life, and a little less harassment and violence from everyone. Ironically, Durjan Ram says the same. The bumpy ride to his village is worth the drive: he’s just back from hours of campaigning in the village around him. Along with him is a new Yadav friend he made through a “bhaichara committee”. It is difficult to prevent the Yadav from answering questions put to Durjan. The new candidate is also a Brahmin, a relatively lesser known Ram Sewak Shukla. The SP first announced Dadua’s son for this seat but then gave the ticket to another Kurmi. February | 2012
According to Durjan and his Yadav friend, Brahmin and Dalit voters together make up over a lakh of voters in this constituency of 2.65 lakh voters. When Durjan goes around motivating Dalit voters to get ready to cast their vote once more for the elephant, what is it that he tells them about his government’s achievements? He mentions the raising of the minimum daily wage from `58 to `120, the sort of raise an SP government would probably not announce as it serves the interests of the farmers who hire daily wage farm labourers, not the labourers themselves. Durjan mentions a pension scheme which gives `400 a month to those who may be landless and don’t have a ration card, are unfairly not listed in the Below Poverty Line list. Is that all? “We got a bad MLA,” he says. “This new candidate is also a Brahmin but a great man. If he wins, he will be great,” Durjan promises. “Most of all,” Durjan says, “I remind Dalit voters of the fact that we have been less afraid of Brahmins in these last five years than we used to. Even if we get no material benefits, we get protection from the rest.” Durjan would know; had he not been able to play his BSP card against the Brahmins, we would not be sitting on this patch of land. He has also started a small shop to sell beedis and tobacco. All his children go to school, he does not fear for his life the way he did before 2009. If the BSP’s new Brahmin candidate does not win, Durjan may not look as hapy and cheerful as he does these days.
Sarvajan fabric showing the strain The last five years have forced Mayawati to take decisions that have not always endeared her to her core constituencyâ€”the Dalits. Many such decisions were taken in the interest of the Sarvajan alliance, the Brahmin-Dalit partnership which is essential for the Bahujan Samaj Party. BY RAM KUMAR PHOTOGRPAH BY SALAMN USMANI
February | 2012
February | 2012
he verdict that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati (aka Behenji) won in 2007 was not just an indictment of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s rule or the anti-incumbency factor, it was also a vote against the lawlessness and widespread thuggery prevalent in the state. Mulayam’s government was not only anti-Dalit, it also had an anti-Brahmin tone. His love for Kalyan Singh antagonised the minorities. It was against this background that Behenji’s call for a “Sarvajan Samaj” and slogans like “Haathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai” rallied the downtrodden of all castes with her. The “Sarvajan” formula, and the anger against Mulayam, gave Behenji a clear majority. Behenji is known as a strong and able administrator. In 2007, too, when she took over, she announced that the lawlessness would have to stop, and that the rule of law would prevail. In one of her early moves, she stopped the practice of politicians travelling with a posse of gunmen in tow. She declared that any politician seen with more than three gunmen in a public place would face action. When BSP MP Ramakant Yadav, from Azamgarh, got the house of a poor Muslim bulldozed so that he could capture his land, Mayawati called him to her residence on the pretext of a meeting and got the MP arrested. Steps like these were aimed at sending a message that no one—whether from the ruling party or the opposition—was above the law. She even dismissed her Food and Civil Supplies minister Anand Sen when he was named an accused in a case of abduction of a woman. Till now, she has expelled 26 leaders, including ministers, from the party. She cancelled the appointment of 17,868 policemen processed under the previous government, a
recruitment that was characterised by large-scale corruption. Twenty-five IPS officers were suspended over this affair. Behenji’s unprecedented majority in 2007 increased her political ambitions manifold and kindled a craving for the prime minister’s chair. While her newfound political ambitions did result in her coming across as a strong leader who took steps to improve the law and order situation, it also led her to tinker with the SC/ST Act [Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act]. The SC/ST Act is a Central law and the state government can’t change its provisions. However, as soon as she took over in 2007, Behenji passed a government order which sought to alter a key enabling provision of the law. According to the UP government’s order, in case of atrocities against Dalits being reported, the police should not register an FIR straight away as is the stipulation under the law, but first make enquires about the complaint, and only proceed when there is a prima facie case made out. This government directive is against the very spirit of the SC/ST Act. This resulted in a spurt of atrocities
against Dalits in the state. The consequence for Dalits was that they were in police stations across the state to compromise rather than complain, that somehow cases of Dalit atrocities would anger the “sarvajan samaj” and set back Behenji’s quest for the prime minister’s office. “Compromise and help Behenji become the PM in 2009”, was the unequivocal message. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, Behenji set her party a target of 60 seats out of the 80 in Uttar Pradesh. In addition, at the bidding of her “special political advisors” she sacrificed her goal of enforcing the rule of law in UP. Instead she handed out poll tickets to 24 mafia bosses and criminal elements. Included in this distinguished company were Mukhtar Ansari, Afzaar Ansari, Dhananjay Singh, D P Yadav and Anna Bhaiya. Twenty-one of the tainted 24 lost the elections, and a shocked Behenji had to be content with just 20 seats. The Dalits were so indifferent, that in spite of repeated appeals by her they refused to come out and vote. Her prime ministerial dream receded into the background. Behenji has always been aggressive as an administrator and the setback of 2009
It’s been a feature of Behenji’s reign that sycophantbureaucrats surround her in no time at all, and that she places enormous trust in this horde. This distorts the power balance of the government and the party. The reason behind this directive is simple. It represents an attempt by the perennially suspicious Behenji to ensure that no other leader of note emerges in the party February | 2012
parliamentary polls didn’t dampen her ardour. When the veteran farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait abused Mayawati in the choicest of terms at a public meeting—where, incidentally, Ajit Singh was also present—she ordered the arrest of Tikait. He retreated hastily to his fortress of Sisauli, his village. But the government shut down the village. Water and electricity connections were cut. In the end a defeated Tikait emerged, apologised and was arrested. It’s been a feature of Behenji’s reign that sycophant-bureaucrats surround her in no time at all, and that she places enormous trust in this horde. This distorts the power balance of the government and the party. It’s taken from the hands of leaders and party workers and February | 2012
handed over to the bureaucrats. Every leader and party worker is asked to be deferential towards these babus. The reason behind this directive is simple. It represents an attempt by the perennially suspicious Behenji to ensure that no other leader of note emerges in the party—a possibility that is always present in her mind. By doing so she is cutting out the chances of organic growth, but Behenji believes that she has a direct connection with the people, and when required she will speak directly with them. Another strong voice in the party, she believes, will weaken this bond with the people. It is because of this that she didn’t hesitate even for a second to expel an important minister like Babu Singh
Kushawa. It speaks eloquently for Mayawati’s clout that no other minister or leader came out in support of Kushawa. He moved from insider one day to stranger the next day in one easy step. In her present term, Behenji initiated 484 development projects. The two most ambitious ones—the Ganga Expressway and the Yamuna Expressway—met with strong protests with the farmers. She also started the Kanshi Ram Urban Poor Housing Scheme for below-povertyline (BPL) city dwellers, a scheme that has benefited poor people across castes. She also opened the Kanshi Ram Urdu, Arabic-Farsi University for the minorities. She started work on power projects to bridge the gap of 600 MW between demand and supply in UP. Then there is the Savitri Phulebai scheme under which girl students of class XI get a bicycle and Rs 10,000. Upon promotion to class XII, the students are entitled to `15,000 as an incentive to continue their education. The government has also opened more than 550 new schools for girls in the state. There have been serious setbacks, too. A Supreme Court order says, “Preference shall be given to Dalits, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the appointments of cooks and helpers” in the midday meal scheme. However, after Behenji took over in 2007, there was a spate of protests in the state because Dalit women were cooking food under the midday meal scheme. For a while there was hope that a strong and determined leader, moreover a Dalit, like Mayawati would stand fast and implement the Supreme Court February | 2012
order, and protect livelihoods of thousands of Dalit women. Contrary to expectations, however, Behenji issued a government order, which overturned the policy of giving preference to women form the Scheduled Castes. This has left a big group feel cheated. The pattern of corruption in this government is also different from Mulayam Singh’s. In that regime it was decentralised and prevailed at all levels. Under Behenji it’s been confined mostly to top bureaucrats and ministers, as the National Rural Health Mission scam and the CBI investigation show. Or take another equally instructive case, such as the MGNREGA, a law which provides for 100 days of employment in a year for the unemployed. The babus in Uttar Pradesh managed to give 150 days of employment to one individual in just one month! This is just one example of the scale of loot in the schemes run for social welfare. As for the money involved, nobody really knows. In the name of “Sarvajan Samaj” Brahmins, part of the Bahujan Samaj Party— upper and lower bureaucracy, and politicians—have got the licence to carry away anything that isn’t actually nailed down or earmarked for someone else. This “unity” under “Sarvajan Samaj” is about sharing selectively the spoils of power. That’s why it’s been allowed to run and not because it has the potential to unite different sections of society. Behenji has also been under the hostile scrutiny of all leaders in the country for her construction of mega parks. She has been accused by virtually everyone
of diverting money that could be used for the poor to build parks and giant elephant statues. This criticism has never fazed her, though. The construction of these parks should be seen in their historical context. After the Maurya dynasty, there was the reign of the upper class elites, which completely destroyed the remnants of “Shudra Shashan”, and wiped out the history of the underclass. The construction of these parks and massive memorials is activated by a desire on Behenji’s part to restore the destroyed historical markers of the Dalits—something that the elite cannot stomach. This is thus part of the battle to re-establish Dalit history. The parks and meFebruary | 2012
morials serve to inspire those who have been depressed for centuries. They give birth to self-respect and remind people of their glorious history which has all but been wiped out over the ages. Mayawati will be remembered for this work, and the statues and memorials will serve to inspire Dalits. To sum up, the last five years have been full of turmoil, where Behenji has often appeared to be at odds with herself. She had her task cut out: to manage both the emotional and economic needs of the Dalits. The balance of power and clout of the upper castes often forced her hand, made her take decisions which were not agreeable to her. If her supporters understand this compulsion she won’t have muchcause for to worry.
February | 2012
We all dream of leaving the chaos of our cities for a place without garbage, clean air and breathing space. Come to Magarpatta City, but beware, your dreams may come true.
ew world Imperial life in the gated city BY SRINATH PERUR
INSIDE ILLUSTRATIONS BY SHASHANK ACHARYA COVER AND TITLE PAGE ILLUSTRATION BY DEEPAK
February | 2012
February | 2012
I ura mat maanna, main Musalmaan hoon,” says the auto-driver, glancing half backwards. We are midway between Pune railway station and Magarpatta City, and deep into a discussion about the cost of living. He is apologetic not for being Muslim, but for bringing up the matter of his religion at all. He was eligible for a government job, but feels he was discriminated against. He has since worked hard, and can now even rent out a spare auto. He is around fifty earns almost `40,000 a month, but still lives in a jhopadpatti. It’s the five children, he tells me. He can either spend on their education or on living in a comfortable house. “We’ve given ourselves a bad name,” he says. “If we followed the teachings of our religion correctly, no one can point a finger at us. But we don’t.” What does he mean, I ask. “Look at what I’m doing right now,” he says, turning to face me while the auto hurtles on. “I’m taking more money from you than I should. But I need the money, and you can afford a little extra.” The fare he has quoted is 50 per cent over the usual, and despite the confession, he shows no qualms in collecting the entire sum. His confidence that I can afford to pay a little extra stems from my destination: if you live or work in Magarpatta City, chances are you are upper middle-class or above. I was intrigued by the place when I first came here a year ago to visit my friend, Rahul. After turning left on the Pune-Solapur highway and proceeding half a kilometre along the Mundhwa Road, the difference between the left and right sides of the busy road becomes striking. On the right, separated from the road by a dusty, uneven
lip is a jumble of shops, small standalone houses, flats, office buildings, aimlessly open spaces. On the left is a neat band of green separating the road from a compound wall. The wall curves left by a sign that announces Magarpatta City, its entrance framed by two giant gray boxes. Underneath, security personnel raise the traffic barrier to allow entry into a place that doesn’t in the least resemble the outside. Inside, it seems perceptibly cooler. The road is less congested and lined by trees. It isn’t as dusty. There isn’t rubble lying around. The road soon leads to a large grassy roundabout where the haze of a mist fountain for a second gives the impression of being in the mountains, with the fanned-out clutch of palms in the immediate background serving to quickly bring one down to a coastal idyll. A board proclaims: Welcome to the Oxygen Zone. Clean and even roads spread out from here to various parts of Magarpatta City. Along the footpaths are sharply trimmed hedges and trees planted in rows, all this greenery reaching its peak at the enormous park at the very centre of Magarpatta City. At the gate of Rahul’s apartment complex, a security guard asks me for ID proof and painstakingly enters my details in a register. After some wandering about the several buildings of the complex I find the right one, take an elevator to the eighth floor, and am at Rahul’s house. I later learn that inside the compound are restaurants, a shopping centre, a hospital, a school. A person could live here February | 2012
a long time without having to venture outside—the “city” in the name is no exaggeration. But for all the order and efficiency of Magarpatta City, I couldn’t ignore the niggling feeling that there was a strange bareness to this world too. If it is less haphazard than the world outside it is also less organic, and it somehow has the frictionless texture of a city inhabited in a dream.
People have always formed clusters within larger human settlements. The earliest instance in India might date back to the Harappan civilisation, excavations of whose cities show evidence of an upper town and lower town, a distinction present to various degrees even in today's cities. Urban populations have since formed pockets based on economic class, occupation, religion, caste, and even diet. Cities have Sindhi and Parsi colonies, cantonments, neighbourhoods associated with communities or trades. Educational institutions and government organisations have had large and more-or-less self-sufficient campuses. Industries have spawned entire cities—Rourkela, Jamshedpur—as their townships. Despite this history, many of the enclaves, townships and gated communities that have come up on the periphery of every large Indian city in the last decade are proving to be different. These are places where the sole criterion for inclusion is economic class—the ability to buy into the community. While there have always been upmarket residential areas, they have seldom been completely
closed to others. But these communities maintain a firm exclusion with security cameras, guards, compound walls and gates. Unlike campuses or industrial townships where the highest and lowest designations shared communal spaces, gated communities give their residents the choice of being surrounded by people of similar economic stature on an unprecedented scale: a few towering buildings to villa communities to entire private cities. This also means that these communities can circumvent the problems of the city outside their compounds: crime, traffic, pollution, shortages of power and water. The reasons for the recent spurt in the number of such communities in India are not hard to find. Cities are getting more crowded, income disparity is increasing, and the middle-class and affluent expect security and a quality of life that governments and city corporations are unable to provide. The Planning Commission's Human Development Report released in October 2011 states that in urban India 90 per cent of assets are owned by the top 40 per cent of households. At the same time, urban population, according to Census of India reports from 2011, has grown by 31.8 per cent in the last decade, while rural population has grown by only 12.18 per cent. To look specifically at Pune City, the population within Pune Municipal Corporation limits has almost doubled in the last twenty years: from 16.91 lakh in 1991 to 31.15 lakh in 2011. Around 40 per cent of the cityâ€™s population lives in slums. At the same time real estate listFebruary | 2012
ings for Pune are full of gated community offerings in various areas. There are also large residential or integrated township projects on the outskirts of Pune City that can house a significant number of people, such as Megapolis (150 acres), Blueridge (188 acres), Magarpatta City (430 acres), Amanora Township (450 acres), and Nanded City (700 acres). Enclosed urban enclaves have been around in other countries for a while. In the USA, gated communities have existed since the 1960s as havens for the retired or affluent. In Saudi Arabia they have allowed expat employees of oil companies and their families to continue to lead a familiar lifestyle. The growing disparity in income and rising crime rates have forced the rich in South America, particularly Brazil and Argentina, to take refuge behind walls. Gated communities and enclaves have been welcomed for reducing the burden on city corporations and the police by being self-sufficient. They also represent an opportunity for planned development that can provide ecologically sustainable living spaces.
A civil secession
Scholarly analysis of the phenomenon of gated communities has also thrown up phrases such as â€œcivil secessionâ€? and noted an increasing and not always justified perception of urban fear. These communities have earned censure for their exclusivity, isolation, and lack of political engagement. But perhaps there lurks a deeper fear that is given expression in fiction and cinema in the West,
where gated communities have been around for longer. This is the idea that groups of people who live in isolation will somehow end up creating warped realities for themselves. The satirical novel The Stepford Wives (and the two films made of it) is set in a gated community in which the men turn independent-minded women into submissive robots. The Mexican-Spanish-Argentine film La Zona shows an exclusive gated community in Mexico that is paranoid about security. A security breach results in the men and children of the community arming themselves and hunting down the intruder—a frightened boy. There are several unnecessary deaths and when the police try to intervene they are paid off by the wealthy and powerful residents. J G Ballard’s novella Running Wild tells the story of a gated community in which all the adults are found murdered one morning with the children missing. It turns out that the murderers are the children, who have engaged in an act of “mass tyrannicide”. Ballard’s narrator says of the children, “[T] hey were trapped forever within a perfect universe. In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.” With so many townships and gated communities coming up, what does it mean for a person to live in one? Are the somewhat hysterical fears of novels and films justified? Are the opportunities for planned urban development and the hopes of improved quality of life realised? I decide to go back to Magarpatta City, live there for a while, and see for myself. The ever-generous Rahul offers me the use of his spare room for as long as I want to stay. I end up spending nearly a month in Magarpatta City. February | 2012
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February | 2012
A farmers’ venture
Magarpatta City happens to be an interesting place for several reasons. The project was conceived by a group of farmers and built on agricultural land, and in this way is part of the ongoing story of India’s transformation from an agrarian economy to an urbanised, industrial one. While several other gated communities offer luxurious lifestyles for the wealthy few, Magarpatta City tends to be less marginal. It is an upper middle-class community of around 35,000 people. It is an integrated township with both residential and commercial areas, and some 60,000 people work here, mostly in the IT sector. And since there are shops, restaurants, a park, a bank, a hospital, a health-club, and other amenities, it is possible for a person who both lives and works here never to have to leave the compound. The story of Magarpatta City’s inception has been told several times, and with good reason. A group of farmers in Hadapsar came together to protect their land and interests. Not only did they succeed in doing this beyond anyone’s expectations, they also ended up creating an unprecedented model of urban development. The land on which these farmers grew sugarcane and vegetables was marked by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) as a “future urbanisable zone” in 1982. This meant that their lands could be acquired by the PMC under the Urban Land Ceiling Act to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding city. Although the agricultural status of the land was February | 2012
renewed in 1987, the city had already begun to press upon the area. Some farmers nearby had sold their small land holdings and, unable to manage the sudden influx of cash and loss of occupation, had squandered the money. The land-holders of Magarpatta decided that they would come together and develop the land into a township. The land-holders were largely from the Magar family, who trace their connection with the land back to more than 200 years. The 123 families together had around 430 acres of land. They were represented by one of the larger land holders, Satish Magar, who was trusted by the clan, had experience in marketing, and was politically well-connected.
Beyond all expectations
With Satish Magar as MD the farmers formed a company—Magarpatta Township Development and Construction Company Ltd—in which each of them had a share proportional to the land they owned, they developed a plan for an integrated township in which residential units would be sold and office space leased to ensure a continued income and connection with the land. Satish Magar took a detailed plan of the proposed township to the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar in 1994. From there began a long process of inspections and approvals that culminated in the project getting underway in late 2000. The farmers of Magarpatta had to be resettled, even if it was on their own land. They bought bungalows or apartments with their percentage from the
sales of residential units and so continued to live there. Some bought shops or additional apartments and rented them out. The younger generation of farmers were counselled, and according to their aptitudes were trained in various professions. The company arranged loans for them to get them started as entrepreneurs in various areas: building construction, labour contracts, security services, landscaping, maintenance work, retail sales. Contracts for work in Magarpatta City and jobs in the company were provided to the locals so they continued to have productive work there. In terms of income, the project has been a windfall to the original landowners. The earliest sales in Magarpatta City were made at around `1,000 per sqare foot. Today prices are between `5,000 and `6,000 per square foot. In addition to income from their businesses and rents from the properties they own, they receive a share of the money earned by the company from office-space rentals and from fees for allowing advertisements and films to be shot in Magarpatta City. The amount distributed in 2011 was `23 crore among 123 share-holding fam-
ilies with over 800 beneficiaries.
Walk, walk, walk
“The vision is walk-to-work, walk-toshop, walk-to-school,” says one of the people associated with Satish Magar’s office as he takes me on a tour of Magarpatta City in his car. He tells me of how Satish Magar visited various places to draw inspiration for the city he was going to build. The walk-to-work concept came from a visit to San Jose, as also the conviction that numbered sectors and buildings such as in Chandigarh were unfriendly; the idea of having flats open into a central space to encourage neighbourliness came from visiting chawls in Girgaum, Mumbai. The artist Ravi Paranjpe suggested the broad aesthetic theme of the five forces of nature and that there be plants in the township that flower during different seasons to mark the passage of time. Most residential complexes are named after flowers—Jasminium, Trillium, Iris, Laburnum Park. Around 120 acres of Magarpatta City is landscaped greenery. At the heart is Aditi Gardens, 25 acres of lawns, trees, walkways, benches and a lake. Surrounding the garden is Cybercity—twelve glass
In terms of income, the project has been a windfall to the original land-owners. The earliest sales in Magarpatta City were made at around `1,000 per sqare foot. Today prices are between `5,000 and `6,000 per square foot. In addition, they receive a share of the money earned by the company from office-space rentals and from fees for allowing advertisements and films to be shot inside February | 2012
towers that put together have six million square feet of IT space and can support 60,000 employees of IT and financial companies, and 20,000 support staff. Radiating outwards are the residential areas comprising layouts for bungalows and row-houses and a dozen compounds, each with several multistory apartment buildings. There are around 7,500 residential units in total. Each building has a play area for children, parking, and an open space in the centre. Magarpatta City has an ICSE school, a hospital, a management institute, a petrol pump, a health-club, a tennis academy, a football ground, a luxury serviced apartment for visitors with an attached lounge bar and restaurant, two stand-alone restaurants named Yummy Tummy and Deccan Harvest, and a large lawn for weddings and other sizeable events. The hub of commercial life is Destination Centre, a shopping complex with administrative offices, a bank, small restaurants and eateries, and shops selling everyday necessities. Nearing completion in the north-eastern corner of Magarpatta City is the Seasons Mall, built on twelve acres of land, and a fifteen screen multiplex theatre. The towering green tank that supplies water to Magarpatta City is fed from a water treatment plant that receives water from the PMC, and is sometimes supplemented by ground-water. Around 20 lakh litres of potable water flows out to residents every day. Power is supplied by the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited (MSEDCL) through a sub-station in Magarpatta City. Generator backup is February | 2012
provided for elevators, street lights and for lighting in the common areas. “It’s a completely eco-friendly design,” my guide tells me as we drive around. He shows me the lake and some of the 350 bore-holes drilled to recharge the water table. Paved surfaces have cut-outs and the lawns have mounds and undulations to capture rain-water. Construction of the township has been with recycled flyash bricks, some 1.3 lakh tonnes in all. The residential buildings all have solar water heaters—7,625 panels, I’m told, that cumulatively are estimated to save 15.7 million electrical units a year. The residents are required to separate dry and wet waste. At the waste processing unit we see heaps of sacks containing plastic bottles or tin cans, ready to be sold to recyclers. The wet waste is converted into compost to be used in the gardens. Sewage passes through a treatment plant that has a capacity of 50 lakh litres per day. A room with a large balloon as its centrepiece turns out to be a two-tonne biogas plant that generates 270 electrical units a day from sewage sludge. This power is used to pump the reclaimed water to the gardens. Magarpatta City is protected by almost 7 km of compound wall with three barricaded entry points, around 1,000 security personnel, a dog squad for detecting bomb threats, and around 750 CCTV cameras. Maintenance is undertaken by the Property Maintenance Services (PMS) division, which employs 876 people, and which maintains the common area and acts as a one-stop go-to for residents for anything related
ADITI IS A SOFT-SPOKEN WOMAN OF 31. OVER A CUP OF COFFEE AT CAFE COFFEE DAY IN MAGARPATTA CITY, SHE TALKS ABOUT GROWING UP IN DELHI “My family didn’t have a car and we couldn’t afford auto-rickshaw every day, so I’d go to school by public bus.” She shudders when she recalls the experience: “For a girl it’s just horrible there. I thought then that money is my solution. I said to myself, ‘I will never travel by bus when I have money’.” Aditi has been living and working in Magarpatta City since she left college. She met her husband here, who also lives and works in Magarpatta City. They are both IT professionals. Besides work, which sometimes spills over into their home, they play tennis and visit the common gym. Household work is largely taken care of by a cook and a woman who comes in to do the cleaning and washing. On some weekends Aditi and her husband may drive into Pune to eat out or watch a movie. Of late Aditi has taken to buying vegetables outside since she feels the prices are much lower. When I ask if living in an enclave can be thought of as trying to escape the city outside, she says, “There is so much chaos in our country. Sometimes all you can do is to escape it. You can't change everything.” But Aditi still holds out hope for the city outside. She and her husband are conscientious voters. But she says she has never seen anyone she recognises at the voting booth. She has begun using public transport again on her visits to Delhi and says things have improved considerably. If it improves in Pune, too, she says, they might head out more often.
to electrical fixtures, plumbing, cable TV, and broadband Internet. They also must grant approval before any work in the flats, such as painting or installation of furniture, antennas or ACs. The PMS also enforces township rules by issuing warnings and imposing fines: for example, leaving dustbins outside the door for more than an hour after garbage collection time invites a fine of `100; leaving anything—shoes, pots, bicycles—in the common area attracts a fine of `200. Residents pay a one-time maintenance charge at the time of purchase. They also pay a corporation tax, but the PMC plays no active role inside Magarpatta City. Internally, there exists an informally appointed Citizens’ Council of 112 resiFebruary | 2012
dents to offer guidance and feedback to the management, but they do not take independent decisions. In addition, there exist committees to organise activities related to culture, sports and other areas of interest.
Young and disengaged
Residents of Magarpatta City—known locally as Magarpatta Citizens or, sometimes, City-zens—are largely young IT professionals in their twenties or thirties. This accounts for the large number of children, around a quarter of the population. A small but significant group is the Magar clan who continue to live here. Occasionally one will see a group of elderly men in Aditi Gardens dressed in the attire of the Maharashtrian farm-
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February | 2012
er. (For ready reference, imagine the Anna Hazare wardrobe). NRIs and the retired seem to enjoy the less chaotic environs relative to the outside. Magarpatta City also generates considerable employment for nearby areas with a steady stream of cooks, domestic help and labour entering daily. Some of the people who live or work in Magarpatta City agreed to share their stories.
Of all the people interviewed for this article, Tulsabai proves the hardest to get time with. She works as a cook in three houses in Magarpatta City, and despite some mild scepticism, agrees when I ask through one of her employers if she would speak with me. But she’d prefer our conversation to be in the presence of didi, the lady of the house, who is at home only on weekends. To complicate matters further, Tulsabai is about to go on leave for a week to attend a relative’s wedding. So it is after considerable wheeling and dealing that I find myself, one Saturday morning, sitting in didi’s fifth-floor kitchen where Tulsabai is preparing lunch. She is a compact, bustling woman of around forty who wears her well-oiled black hair in a tight bun. After some initial reticence she proves such a willing talker that didi begins to fret for the food simmering away on the stove. The reason I am keen to hear about Tulsabai's life is that she has spent most of her life working on this land, first as daily wage farm labour, then as landscaper, then as domestic help, and now February | 2012
as cook. What does a place like Magarpatta City mean to someone who lives just outside and is not as affluent? Tulsabai was married before she was 12 and received no schooling. “I can’t even sign my name,” she says. She recalls her younger days, when she worked in the sugarcane fields here for `5 per day, as a time of great hardship. “Use sticks and a towel to make a cradle for the child, some puffed rice for the day. Who wants all that?” she says, with an expression of disgust. When the development of Magarpatta City began, she began to work on the same land as a landscaper, receiving `40 per day. As people began to move into their houses, she started working as domestic help, charging a couple of hundred rupees per month from each of her houses “for every item”: vessels, clothes, sweeping and mopping. For the last few years she has started to work as a cook. She spends her mornings cooking in three houses and now earns around `6,000 every month. Tulsabai’s husband worked in construction, and in the catering company in Magarpatta City after agriculture here came to an end. They have three children. The eldest, 23, began working early and is now a construction supervisor here. Another son, 21, studied in an ITI (Industrial Training Institute) and works in a factory. The youngest son is in the 12th standard. Tulsabai is relieved that her sons have kept to the straight and narrow despite. She summarises their day as: “Padhai, kaam, ghar, TV.” Tulsabai lives in a jhopadpatti nearby
in Hadapsar. She says about the people around her: “Previously they all had to travel large distances to work, but now everyone works in Magarpatta City.” But there are others who travel large distances to work in Magarpatta City. She tells me of one woman who commutes daily from Daund, around 70 km away, to work as domestic help. To enter Magarpatta City daily, as Tulsabai does, requires a pass issued by the security office and signed by the employer. She tells me of the copious documentation required: “Light bill, ration card, neighbours' contact information, village address, photographs.” Someone who wants to looks for work here can accompany a person with this pass for two days, after which they'll have to have their own pass made. Tulsabai’s family has now built their own house, but they have rented it out for the time being. They will move when her oldest son gets married: “She will be educated. Why should they live in a jhopadpatti?” Her second son now wants to work in one of the companies in Magarpatta City. (She doesn’t know as what, but possibly in a call centre.) He has asked her for money to pay for a training course, but she has told him to save up for a while and pay for it himself. Tulsabai’s daily routine involves cooking and packing lunch for her husband and sons, coming to Magarpatta City to cook in three other houses, then returning to do the washing and cleaning in her own house. Her only complaint is that her sons insist on wearing jeans, which are hard February | 2012
to wash by hand. One of her employers gave her a bicycle a couple of years back. She learnt how to ride it and now her short commute has become easier. She says about her current situation: “Bahut haal nikaal nikaalke thoda accha hua. Abhi sab sukh hai.” (Things have improved after a lot of struggle. Now everything is fine.)
Amita lives in a flat in Magarpatta City with her teenage daughter. She grew up in the United States, but is of Indian origin, and speaks Marathi. It had always been her dream to live in India, she says, but she never got the opportunity. So when her marriage ended a few years back, she decided to move to India. Amita is a petite and extraordinarily fit woman (she has worked as a fitness instructor in the past). Her speech bears an American inflection and her animated demeanour often undercuts the directness of her words. “Indians are bad,” she says, with a cheery lack of bitterness. Her first business venture here ended after she was defrauded by her partner. “If you’re a single female in India, they rip you off. You can’t get anywhere.” But she had a good experience with buying a flat in Magarpatta City, and is thankful she made the purchase when prices were relatively low. She also appreciates the feeling of security that comes from living in an enclave. “I get scared the minute I go outside,” she says. “It’s safe here.” Amita also finds some aspects of living in Magarpatta City stifling. She says she had wanted to put up notices for a
small design shop she had started, but she wasn’t allowed to. A notice put up with the shop-owner’s permission inside a shop in Destination Centre was ripped off by security. She tried slipping flyers into people's mailboxes, but, as she puts it somewhat dramatically, “five security guards came and treated me like a thief ”. She was told to take permission from the PMS office, who then allowed her to distribute flyers for an hour for a charge of `500. Amita rules out living anywhere outside, citing a lack of civic sense. “You can’t do anything. Even the government can't do anything. It’s the people who are bad. They spit everywhere, they urinate. Rich people are like that, too. “Even here, some grandparents let their kids urinate in the garden. ‘Excuse me, can you not do that,’ I said to one of them, and you know what they said? ‘But your dog does it’.”
Ajay might count as one of the discontents of Magarpatta City. He is a slightly stocky, bespectacled man in his late 20s, who lives and works in Magarpatta City. Ajay grew up in an industrial township called Kirloskarwadi in the south of Maharashtra. When he started working in Pune, his father suggested he buy a flat
in Magarpatta since the place was similar to a township. I first meet Ajay at a meeting of the Pune south-east chapter of Toastmasters International, an international non-profit that provides a structure for its members to form local groups and improve their public speaking and leadership skills. Ajay delivers a humorous speech about his first time on an airplane. This was when he went to the United States on work, a period that may have shaped his expectations regarding quality of life. He believes that living in Magarpatta City is certainly more convenient than living outside: “You save time on basic things—you don't have to deal with maintenance, security. There’s less traffic and pollution.” Still, it falls short of his ideal: “But I don’t think it is world-class. Outside factors affect this place, because of which it cannot be as good as in a developed country.” One of the “outside factors” he cites is the 23-acre garbage dump in Hadapsar. It can sometimes be smelt from Magarpatta, depending on the wind, and Ajay feels this can prove a health concern. He also feels that Magarpatta City is not as self-sufficient as it should be. “They haven’t considered the entertainment aspect. Also, we have to go outside to access a super-market like Big Bazaar.”
To enter Magarpatta City daily, as Tulsabai does, requires a pass issued by the security office and signed by the employer. She tells me of the copious documentation required: ‘light bill, ration card, neighbours’ contact information, village address, photographs’ February | 2012
VIJAY HAS A KEEN INTEREST IN CITY PLANNING AND TRANSPORT AND HAS LIVED IN MUMBAI, PUNE, KOLKATA AND CHICAGO. “FOR ME IT’S A NO BRAINER,” HE SAYS. “If you look at the availability of clean air, water, food, easy access to work, Magarpatta will come out on top.” The idea behind Magarpatta City, he says, is for kids to be safe while playing or walking to school, and for parents to eliminate their work commute altogether by walking to nearby offices. “The government is not capable of providing good roads and transport, and this is a model where you don’t use transport at all. The moment the government comes in, you are going to suffer. It is unfortunate that I have to say this.” Vijay is near-reverential in his consideration of Satish Magar’s achievement. “Basically, he is interested in improving people’s quality of life. The kind of leadership and vision that has gone into the making of this place, I don’t think people living here now know it. People should contribute to this vision. He is particularly saddened when he sees people using cars and motorcycles to travel short distances inside Magarpatta City.” To Vijay, Magarpatta City is more than just a place that offers good quality of life. He sees it as a crucible that can pave the way for a larger urban transformation. He has been involved with organisations that have tried to work with the Pune Municipal Corporation to address the traffic situation in Pune, but he found that it was hard to change anything. “But in this place, you can change things,” he tells me animatedly. “You can approach the committees with your ideas. If the committee is not working, you can go up to Satish Magar. You can join the committee yourself. People who complain about this place— you must ask them what exactly they have done after coming here. If you have a problem outside, nobody will listen to you. At least here you can try to do something.” “I like unsolved problems,” Vijay tells me. For instance, he converted the PMPNL bus routes into the requisite format and uploaded it to Google Maps so that the site can now be used to navigate Pune by bus. “In Magarpatta the solution already exists. Maybe when I'm forty I will take up a barren piece of land somewhere and develop a city.”
A large mall and multiplex are under construction, but Ajay feels they should have been opened earlier. He also believes the security could be more rigorous. He cites an instance where his friend rode his motorcycle into Magarpatta City, into Ajay’s building's compound, and reached Ajay’s flat without being stopped once by security staff. He contrasts this with the new development across the road from Magarpatta—Amanora Township—which has February | 2012
video door phones and smart card access. Ajay would like to see a biometric system in place to verify that drivers or buses and taxis, and domestic help, are indeed who they say they are. Ajay sometimes finds it restrictive living in a closed enclave. He brings up Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement as an example: “Outside, in Pune, colleges were shut and people organised rallies, even employees of software companies. But nothing happened here.
SATISH MAGAR, Managing Director,
MAGARPATTA TOWNSHIP DEVELOPMENT AND CONSTRUCTION CO. LTD. SATISH MAGAR IS A TALL, STRONGLY BUILT MAN IN HIS FIFTIES WITH A RETICENT AIR ABOUT HIM. HE COMES ACROSS AS SO DIRECT AND STRAIGHT-FORWARD IN HIS SPEECH THAT IT IS NOT HARD TO IMAGINE THE FARMERS OF MAGARPATTA ENTRUSTING THEIR LAND AND FUTURE TO HIM. “IT WAS NOT VERY DIFFICULT TO BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER,” HE SAYS, A TOUCH MODESTLY. “It was selling a dream, after all.” Magarpatta City, he says, is not just a real estate project. “When it comes to urbanisation I think community development is the most important aspect. No settlement can be successful without human interaction.“ It is to this end that Magarpatta City organises communal celebrations of festivals and encourages committees to organise sports and cultural activities. Early on in the history of Magarpatta City, when it wasn’t completely clear how well it would do, members of a certain community— Magar won’t say which one—had come to him with a proposal. They would buy 400 flats, they had said. But they wanted these flats to be together, they wanted a religious structure there, and they wanted certain dietary restrictions nearby. Satish Magar refused, and twice more when others had come with similar proposals. “We wanted to be an open community,” he says. Even the extended Magar family were not allotted flats together to ensure that they would integrate better with the other residents. Satish Magar lived in a hostel while studying at the agricultural university in Pune. He found it an entirely different world from the Cambridge affiliated school he attended. “There were people from villages, from Nagaland. I experienced the diversity of India for the first time.” That is the reason, he says, Magarpatta City offers education up to the tenth standard, and then at the postgraduate level. “You have to go out for college. Otherwise it’s like solitary confinement.” Towards the beginning of my interview with Satish Magar I mention Aditi Kumar to him as someone who met her husband in Magarpatta City. A short while later he breaks off what he is saying and drops his undemonstrative mien for a moment. He turns and beams at an associate. “I never knew there were people who met here and got married,” he says. “We should meet them.”
There is a problem with organising anything here. You have to first take permission from the PMS office. “The right to protest is a basic right of an Indian citizen. Why should you need anyone’s permission? Even if you are having a small birthday party and you need 20 chairs, you must give an application and they will deliver it to your flat. You can’t just bring the chairs from February | 2012
outside. Security can create a problem.” Ajay is in charge of publicity for his chapter of Toastmasters, but he hasn’t been able to get permission to circulate flyers or put up a poster at Destination Centre. “It’s a long process,” he says. He does believe that the management is well-intentioned and has particular regard for Satish Magar, whom he plans to meet to convey the benefits people in
the community will accrue from joining Toastmasters. “Groups such as Art of Living and Brahmakumaris have in the past held events in the community hall. If the management is convinced that an activity is good for the residents, they will allow it.” Ajay has bought a second flat in Magarpatta as an investment and rented it out. He plans to emigrate soon to Australia for the change of environment and a better quality of life. He tells me, as our meeting concludes, that to hear the other side of the story, I must meet his brother, Vijay, who sees in Magarpatta City an enormous opportunity.
Vijay Patil suggests KM’s name when I ask for an example of someone who has tried to change or create something in Magarpatta City. As a matter of principle, KM asks that I use only his initials to refer to him. He doesn’t want his name to be attached with the couple of community endeavours he initiated at Magarpatta City. We meet on a Saturday afternoon on the lawns of Yummy Tummy to discuss his experiences. KM works in the IT sector and is a still, wiry man in his thirties with a propensity for breaking into sudden smiles. He has been living in Magarpatta City for the last seven years and particularly appreciates the fact that his five year old daughter gets adequate space and safety to play outside. KM was an enthusiastic chess player in college and on his visits abroad had seen public areas where people could February | 2012
play chess. He felt that such a space would be good to have at some central spot in Magarpatta City so that strangers could meet. “You have to be a little smart to bring about the change you wish,” he tells me, commenting about some others who have been unable to have their complaints or suggestions heard by the management. KM presented his idea to Satish Magar and offered to buy the chess sets if the administration would provide chairs and tables. The entrance of Destination Centre was chosen as an appropriate venue, and each Saturday morning KM would ensure that chairs, tables and chess sets were set out. Now, chess on Saturday mornings has become a tradition or sorts, and goes on without KM's involvement. Being a keen reader, KM felt the need for a library in Magarpatta City. He came up with the idea of a cooperative library. Membership would be by contributing at least one book, and members would volunteer to take care of the logistics of running the library. KM took care to ensure that money did not change hands at any point: “Once it becomes commercial, the responsibility increases, it's harder to get permission.” Again, KM presented the idea of the library to Satish Magar. The administration agreed to provide a room for the library, as well as shelves, a phone and a computer with Internet. In two months the library had over 300 members and around 2000 books, all donated by the community. One man even donated his entire collection of
books on spirituality, and a van had to be enlisted to transport the books. The library was kept open for two hours every other day, sometimes by children, and for over a year by a retired man in his seventies. But ultimately, involvement from the community wasn't enough for the library to sustain itself. When users chided him for occasional irregularity or for inconvenient timings, KM would offer them the keys and ask them to take responsibility for opening the library when it was convenient to them. “But even regular users reacted violently to any such suggestion. People expected to be served, not to serve.”
On a morning walk in Aditi Gardens I pass residents in various attitudes of exercise. There are joggers, hurtling briskwalkers, calisthenic toe-touchers, sniffing pranayama practitioners. A pair of Brahmakumaris are intercepting the more languid strollers to invite them to a discourse at the nearby Amanora Township. At around 8 am the speakers dotted along the walk-ways strike up the national anthem and everyone abandons their exertions to stands at attention (except an elderly jogger who, probably unwilling to risk a sudden stop, jogs on the spot). It’s one of Magarpatta City's traditions to play the national anthem and have the security office hoist the national flag every morning. Other traditions include a parade of security personnel on Republic Day and communal celebrations of festivals. The first day of Diwali sees residents come together to light thousands of lamps February | 2012
along the streets with electric lights turned off. The ten-day Ganesha festival, I’m told, is particularly spectacular, with daily performances by residents. The largest gathering of Magarpatta Citizens is the Foundation Day celebration, held on December 3, when 20,000 people gather on the Laxmi lawns for a performance. This time it is a concert by the singer Shreya Ghoshal. That afternoon, Rahul and I stand in line outside the Marketing Office to collect our free passes, which are for some reason being issued at an excruciatingly slow rate. The sun is fierce and there is no shade. A young woman and man examine the queue with some dismay. The woman then goes to the head of the line and picks a fight with the security guard who is allowing people into the office. “Why aren’t there more counters?” she wants to know. The guard, exasperated after a few minutes of argument, finally says, “Will you sit at the counter?” “Yes,” she says. The fact that she is upset and has won a battle of words with the guard is somehow justification for her to barge in ahead of all those in the queue. No one protests. She emerges with two passes and smiles at her partner waiting outside. Laxmi Lawns is a sea of white chairs that evening. There is one entrance for gold passes and another for the regular ones. Rahul and I are among the commoners and our section starts easily 50 metres from the stage. There seem to be plenty of vacant chairs towards the front of our section,
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but this proves deceptive. Entire rows of chairs are being “reserved” by one or two representatives of families or groups of friends. We watch the show on the helpfully provided screens, but it is a joyless affair. Shreya Ghoshal’s attempts to get the audience to sing along or clap fizzle out pretty quickly. In the interval, the MC announces Satish Magar’s arrival on stage to no response from the crowd around us. Magar mentions the passing of B G Deshmukh, former Union cabinet secretary and principal secretary to three prime ministers, an early friend of the Magarpatta City project, and a resident as well. The Pride of Magarpatta City award is posthumously awarded to him. The audience around us seems completely indifferent: there is zero applause, most people are chatting or involved with their phones or eating the combomeals being sold. When this listlessness in the air is brought up it is commonly attributed to those who live here as tenants—60 per cent of all residents. They tend to be young and as KM says, “They treat the place like a hostel. Many tenants have never participated in any of the activities despite living here for a long time. Most people are bankrupt to a life outside work.” A former resident of Magarpatta City, Shweta Agrawal, who herself works in the IT sector, says, “Software people tend to be a little one-dimensional. And Magarpatta has a lot of them.” And something that most residents seem to ignore, independent of occupation or tenant status, is the walk-toFebruary | 2012
work, walk-to-shop vision of Magarpatta City. I had expected to see many bicycles in use, a perfect mode of transport for a place the size of Magarpatta City, but it is only children and support staff who are seen riding them. “Initially, we hadn’t thought of providing parking in Destination Centre,” Satish Magar says. “We thought people would walk and use cycles. But it’s a big story to expect people to walk 1 km. It’s all part of the baggage... In a developing country owning a car is a matter of pride.” The idea of home and office seem somewhat fluid to those who live and work in Magarpatta City. It is common to see residents everywhere—in restaurants, streets, the garden, leaving or entering their homes—with their office ID cards hanging from a lanyard or clipped to their belts. Shweta, when she lived and worked here, was bothered by the fact that her office and home were so close: “I couldn’t relax. I’d feel I was in office even when I was at home.” But the same aspect is perceived differently by others, for instance, Vijay Patil. “In some flats,” he tells me, eyes lighting up as he illustrates the convenience, “people can shout from their balcony to someone in their office.” Almost everyone I speak to, though, agrees that Magarpatta City is an ideal place to bring up children. There is space to play in each apartment block, high quality sports facilities at an accessible distance, a wide range of cultural activities and classes offered for children. Cameras and security guards keep
watch even while children play truant in the streets. Satish Magar points out a flipside to this idyll: “The children are in such a protected environment that it is difficult for them to survive outside.” He recounts the instance of a couple who moved to Noida from Magarpatta City. “Their small kid had to undergo psychiatric treatment. He would get paranoid about the traffic and cars honking and all that.” The few times I leave Magarpatta City to go into Pune I feel not very unlike that kid. One evening at rush hour I wait at Swargate for an hour, unwilling to hurl myself into the hive of people at the door of bus after bus that pulls up. I end up taking an auto-rickshaw back. As I stay longer, the prospect of travelling outside, especially using public transport, comes to feels like an ordeal. I schedule back-to-back meetings when I foray into town, and am always relieved to return to the blank tranquility of Magarpatta City. Still, the two experiences from that month that I recall most vividly happened outside: one involves a beggar coming along while I eat vada-pav on the street, invoking a touch of moral dyspepsia; the other involves passing by a woman squatting on the footpath outside a hospital, curled into herself, crying soundlessly and with such abjection that no one dared look at her. Even while I’m reluctant to leave Magarpatta City, I feel a mild sense of unease while staying here. The world somehow feels watered down, and maybe all this uniformity and convenience is something that takes getting used to. But there's also a hint of desolation about February | 2012
the place that may have something to do with its topography. It takes effort to find a visual landmark here. Walking down a street that has the same species of tree planted by the road at regular intervals gets monotonous quite quickly. On the road that surrounds Aditi Gardens, all the towers of Cybercity look the same, one junction is the same as another. There are the advertisements on the bus-stop-like benches and lamp-posts— Ferrero Rocher, Heels Dance Academy, Iken Braingym—but they too tend to recur. The security guards and landscapers usually blend into the background as generic uniforms. (One of the residents tells me that moving to Magarpatta City virtually finished off his hobby: street photography). More than the size of Magarpatta City, it is the featurelessness that creates an impression of vastness and isolation. Maybe that is the reason more people aren’t walking. There may not be traffic-jams and beggars in Magarpatta City, but, as everyone keeps reminding me, the outside always comes in. Residents must interact with their domestic help. Ajay Patil might complain that there was no echo here of recent protests against corruption (though I did see a flat with a large “I’m With Anna” printout pasted on the front door), but there are other forms of political activism at work. One evening I go to Destination Centre hoping to get dinner and find the whole complex closed. Sharad Pawar— at whose hands Magarpatta City was officially inaugurated—has been slapped in Delhi, and local supporters have ensured that what is happening in the rest
of Pune happens in Magarpatta City too. There is obviously some degree of political mobilisation here, and according to Satish Magar, Magarpatta City has 6,000 voters, which is a quarter of its corporation ward’s electorate. Magarpatta City has certainly galvanised the economy in its immediate environs as shop-owners and auto-drivers will readily acknowledge. It gives employment to at least as many people as it houses: support staff in its Cybercity, construction workers, PMS staff, security personnel, cooks and domestics for 7,500 households. There is little doubt that Magarpatta City is a sign of things to come. As Satish Magar says, “The Indian mindset has become global because they travel now. They’ve become demanding. Such communities will have to come up. It is also important because infrastructure has to be decentralised. You cannot any longer have the municipality do everything for you.” The government is encouraging more integrated township projects, and since 2005 has allowed 100 per cent direct foreign investment in them. The number of integrated township projects currently underway in cities and towns in India must be in the hundreds. As the earliest in the current model of integrated townships, Magarpatta City might indicate the direction that middle-class life could take in India. The cultural and sports events at Magarpatta City were started to encourage residents to get together. The annual cricket tournament has taken a new form in the latest edition that got February | 2012
underway in December 2011. It is now called the Magarpatta Premier Cricket League (MPCL) and is a month-long tournament played between 16 teams representing City neighbourhoods. The teams were auctioned off to the highest bidders and are named after residential buildings or sponsors—LIC Life Savers Laburnum Park, Iken Sylvania Supersonics, Cosmos Panthers. The team owners are allowed to attract sponsors in exchange for advertising on the event’s hoardings, posters and the players' clothing. The invitation to the inauguration also reached out to potential sponsors: “Advertisements in MPCL will provide immense benefits to team owners businesses by reaching directly up to 75,000 audiences in Magarpatta city, thru various media.” A cricket enthusiast who plays for his office team reports trying to join his building’s team. He was asked if he had played at the Ranji level or for any club. He backed off, overawed, and was incredulous later when he heard that the league was being played with tennis balls. Magarpatta City has 35,000 affluent residents corralled in a compound. Many more visit every day to work. This willing, relatively homogeneous market represents a seller’s dream. It is inevitable that access to such a market will be controlled, both for the economic opportunity it presents and for the residents' own comfort. So, it is not surprising that Amita Rane or Ajay Patil would face obstacles in publicising their endeavours—if everyone were allowed to hand out flyers
Magarpatta City has 35,000 affluent residents corralled in a compound. Many more visit every day to work. This willing, relatively homogeneous market represents a seller’s dream. It is inevitable that access to such a market will be controlled, both for the economic opportunity it presents and for the residents’s own comfort the residents would be inundated. But Amita and Ajay might also be justified in feeling that it should be easier for them to reach out to their own neighbourhood than it is for a pizza chain to thrust discount coupons into their mailboxes. The constant pressure of commerce might end up stifling the kind of amateurism or semi-amateurism that imparts so much vibrancy to urban Indian neighbourhoods: the housewife who embroiders or teaches knitting, the man who teaches a few children music or maths, activities that are in the end as much about identity and community as they are about money. Whatever the response from its inhabitants, the management of Magarpatta City has taken great pains over time to build the framework for a warm, communal life. But these efforts seem to be guided largely by one man’s—Satish Magar's—vision and persistence. The team that built Magarpatta City is now using their experience to help with other integrated townships. The much larger Nanded City, again with land pooled by farmers, is almost ready and a couple of other similar projects are in the pipeline. Similar integrated township projects are underway at many other places across India, and while the February | 2012
scale and complexity of Magarpatta City will be exceeded, the human aspect will prove harder to replicate. Satish Magar likes to say that Magarpatta City is more than a real estate project. But many others that follow are likely to be just that. Ultimately, a city’s character is determined by its inhabitants. Without selfawareness and conscious effort on their part, any affluent and uniform community risks turning into a kind of residential adjunct to a mall. The business of daily life can be carried out largely through transactions with faceless uniforms – security guards, aisle assistants, waiters, administrative staff—leaving a person with the time, money and leisure to become the consummate consumer and little else. Is that necessarily a terrible thing? In the first half of the nineteenth century the French social and political observer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States to study the effects of the new political and economic order taking hold there. In his classic Democracy in America he tries to foresee how despotism of a mild sort—“it would degrade men without tormenting them”—might in future preside over a homogeneous, individualistic society.
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He envisions “an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest – his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not— he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. [. . . .] [I]t provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances—what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a
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man of all the uses of himself.” One afternoon towards the end of my stay in Magarpatta City I venture out, cross the road and visit the enormous mall that has recently opened in another township. The staff continually greet visitors with an automatic namaste. Looking for lunch I enter one of the few restaurants already functioning. Inside is a carefully assembled dreamland: the tables are elaborately gaudy; the sides of stools have collages of Bollywood posters; serial lights twinkle on the wall alongside horn loudspeakers. A bicycle attached to an old gramophone player hangs on the wall. The waiters labour to reply in English even when I speak in Hindi. There are fragments of meaningless Devanagari on the lighting fixtures, and elsewhere dialogue from Hindi films written in the Latin script. The TV shows a cricket match and Kishore Kumar sings Pal Pal from a non-decorative speaker somewhere. The menu offers Chinese, Mexican, Punjabi. It is beyond me to separate the earnest from ironic, the kitsch from retro. And to think all this was plain farmland just 20 years ago. (Some names have been changed on request)
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General, and unreserved
Cross-country travel in the general compartment is crowded, dusty and a real torture chamber in summer. And yet for thousands it remains the only way of travelling long distances. PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT BY RONNY SEN
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The apparition of these faces in the crowd, Petals on a wet, black bough. – In a Station of the Metro.
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nforgettable as an expression of a poetic experience of the highest order. The inexorable spell of these two lines by Ezra Pound weighs upon me whenever I catch sight of a typically Indian scene crammed with people. The lines recycle themselves into visuals as I scratch around for the right frame to showcase my perception of the Indian reality. Particularly when my camera chances upon the mess one finds so frequently in the unreserved general compartments of a railway carriage. We don’t need to remind ourselves that the lines have nothing characteristically Indian about them. Ostensibly, though, they depict the crowd in a station of the Metro. The pen-picture of the “Petals on a wet, black bough” speaks clearly of a different clime. “The apparition of these faces in the crowd” of the first line, on the other hand, keeps haunting you even as you try to escape. Travel the length of the country. Board a train, thrust your way through the crowd to some messy corner of a general compartment and you start losing your identity. One can safely predict a traumatic journey to the destination of absolute facelessness. What the series seeks to capture is the chaos of a sick, thick throng gasping for air. It takes you straight into the heart of the muddle and the mess. It makes you listen to the muffled voice of individuality. Ruthlessly robbed of your right to breathe, you are already there, sharing with the hapless masses the unbearable tightness of being—bearing with them the full burden of an inescapable Indian experience.
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Smooth as silk, but short on truth
Vidya Balan is terrific as Reshma, whose story was ‘inspired’ by Silk Smitha, but The Dirty Picture offers too facile explanations for a tormented, enormously successful artiste who took her own life in the end. BY PARTHA CHATTERJEE
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he Dirty Picture is a commercial Hindi film that may well be the smash hit of 2011. It is bold by the standards of commercial cinema in India, based on the tormented life of Silk Smitha, a poor girl who rose to stardom and great success in Tamil cinema, albeit after paying a great price in human terms. But the producers declare in the opening credits that the story doesn’t resemble the life of any character, living or dead! Neither director Milan Luthria nor the principal producer Ekta Kapoor, who has had an unbroken run of success in the production of status quoist television serials, wanted to meddle with what was a juicy story, not really a tragic one, and a potential box-office bonanza! Ekta Kapoor, the producer with the Midas touch on TV, has proved to be right again, but something vital and, yes, human has been lost in the making of The Dirty Picture. Luthria and his script-writer Rajat Arora have created the perfect masala-film where tears are shed quite easily on the death and therefore loss of a really sassy and sexy “Item Girl” in commercial cinema, a terrific dancer who brought in the audiences, “drugged” by the “sleaze” she offered on-screen. The real Silk Smitha was for a while the toast of South Indian mainstream cinema. She had laya, a sense of tempo, grace, and a smouldering, incandescent presence. She could act when called upon to do so. The opportunities for acting were few and far between, but when they came along, she was more than up to it. One remembers her in the Hindi film Sadma set in a posh-ish boardingschool. She held her own opposite the brilliant and versatile Kamal Haasan. Not only did she dance beautifully in a “fantasy” sequence but acted sen-
sitively without being bothered by the leading lady, Sridevi. Then the reigning queen of Hindi films, she had the juicier role, of a lost girl struck by amnesia and rescued by the handsome young school master (Kamal Haasan). The Dirty Picture is about a poor, sexually exploited girl with a flair for dance who wants to break into films. Break in she does, by bedding the leading “hero” Surya Kant (Naseeruddin Shah), who is old and lecherous and hugely successful in a male-dominated film industry. He, in a sense, runs the film industry in Madras (now Chennai). The producers all fawn on him. His word is law. She, Reshma/Silk, played by Vidya Balan, (the Smitha bit has been dropped in fear of a libel suit) takes matters in her own hands, barges into his dressingroom, caresses his thigh as he feigns unconcern, and says, “It’s believed you have had a ‘continuity’ with 500 women, Why don’t you have 500 ‘continuities’ with the same woman?’’ This open offer of sexual intercourse for a moment rattles the jaded old superstar. The next thing we see is that she has a starring role in his film. This kind
of blatant propositioning has been included to mislead the viewer into believing that commercial Hindi cinema has grown up and that women can ask powerful men directly to sleep with them for reasons of expediency. Such an action would probably have been beyond the real Silk Smitha. True, she was as literally hungry as Luthria’s Silk but even she would have been hardpressed to show both her helplessness and with it, her burning ambition to get into the movies. Her sanskaras or cultural upbringing would perhaps have forced her to take a circuitous route to the same goal. Silk in The Dirty Picture has the advantage of the backing of her director and script-writer, both pseudo-modern, who give off a false notion of Indian modernity. Neither Luthria nor Arora, would dare to question the debilitating effect the family, and by extension the nation, and a blind, pitiless God, have upon the creative and spiritual growth of an individual in India. Silk Smitha never had the advantages that her on-screen reincarnation had. Her own religiosity prevented her from
Luthria and his script-writer Rajat Arora have created the perfect masala-film where tears are shed quite easily on the death and therefore loss of a really sassy and sexy ‘Item Girl’ in commercial cinema, a terrific dancer who brought in the audiences, ‘drugged’ by the ‘sleaze’ she offered on-screen. The real Silk had laya, a sense of tempo, grace and a smouldering, incandescent presence. She could act when called upon to do so February | 2012
getting “laid” with impunity. It is true that that she was ruthlessly exploited sexually before she established herself, but it is highly unlikely that she would have made the first move. The worlds of Silk Smitha and of Luthria’s version do, however, meet at one level. They can match each other for both literal and metaphorical loudness. Smitha’s professional world was crass and vulgar. Need one add that the decible levels were as deafening as they are in the film? Luthria, like many of his colleagues, believes that every drop of emotion in the story ought to be milked and the best way is to be as loud and melodramatic as possible. Experience has taught him that in the commercial cinema the more over the top you are, the more likely the possibility of success. There is, however one touch of novelty: the raunchiness that is passed off as an essential ingredient in the “realistic” February | 2012
depiction of Reshma/Silk’s world. Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and now Bengali films reveal an increasing penchant for crudeness. It is generally believed in film industry circles that audiences enjoy crudity because most of their lives, even those of the deprived, are circumspect, to stretch the point a bit, even castrated. Commercial films in India liberates the audience by pandering to its sexual fantasies. The Dirty Picture does a splendid job in this area. But its one redeeming feature is that no matter how vulgar Reshma/Silk’s dialogues are, they are delivered with aplomb and a certain grace. For example, she tells her friend and sort-of mentor, Selva Ganesh (Rajat Sharma) also known as Kidda Babu, that she will do such an item number that the (male) audience will find it difficult to keep still in their loosened lungis, thereby suggesting the possibility of a mass erection. It
Silk Smitha never had the advantages that her on-screen reincarnation had. Her own religiosity prevented her from getting ‘laid’ with impunity. It is true that she was ruthlessly exploited sexually before she established herself, but it is highly unlikely that she would have made the first move could have gone out of hand but Vidya Balan says it with the right amount of nonchalance and poise. Reshma/Silk in the film is a feisty character, but not a wily one. She is outwitted by people far more cunning than her and at ease in the murky world of show business. She is there because she literally has no alternative, being a poor, and at best, a barely literate woman. Those responsible for her meteoric rise in the film world see her as an object of sexual gratification rather than a woman of talent.
Her mentor and lover, the aged superstar Surya Kant, sees her as a terrific lay, and that’s it. There are strong parallels between the lives of Reshma/Silk and that of the tragic Silk Smitha. In The Dirty Picture, Silk overwhelms Surya Kant sexually so that she stays at the top. Too little is known about the life of the real Silk Smitha except for salacious gossip, whose veracity is at best dodgy. There is another affecting parallel. In the film, Silk goes to see a film featuring February | 2012
her and is delighted to see the audience go crazy over her sizzling dance number, and then leaving in droves just before the “serious” part of the movie resumes. She is naïve enough to tell the truth to Surya Kant who, though stung to the quick, with practised ease does not respond. One wonders how Silk Smitha would have reacted in a similar situation. Is the director, in connivance with his scriptwriter, having us on? Is there an attempt to prepare the viewer for a Hollywood kind of redemption? Is he trying to tell us what a brave and unfortunate girl Silk is, and how gallantly she is fighting impossible odds? It is certainly possible that Silk Smitha enjoyed greatly all the adulation she got from the man in the street but would she have risked jeopardising her career by pulling her mentor’s leg? She knew what it took to get to the place that she did. She hated being treated as a piece of meat by the monstrous men who ran the film industry. In The Dirty Picture, Reshma/Silk behaves like a cheeky young woman
scoring a point over her much older lover. One is led to wonder if such characterisation can be seen as Luthria and Arora’s attempt to be seen as a modern film making duo, of course within the hidebound conventions of commercial Hindi cinema. Reshma/Silk is miffed at being shoved into the bathroom immediately after sex with Surya Kant in his farmhouse when he gets a sudden phone call from his wife telling him that she is arriving shortly. What does Silk do? She takes up with Ramakant, Surya Kant’s kid brother, an aspiring script-writer! Such petulance is all right in an inexperienced young thing unable to cope with rejection but Silk knows how it works and for her to behave in such a headstrong manner is bit of a contradiction, to say the least. Sex, according to the current heart throb of American pop music, Lady Gaga, is what makes the world go round. The Dirty Picture is mainly about the sexual pecadilloes of the powerful within the film industry, as was the profesFebruary | 2012
sional life of Silk Smitha. When she firmly established herself she thought it was time to bid goodbye to moneylenders, real and would be, and seek the genuine article—love. She never found it, although she had a friend in Dr Ramakrishna who helped her weather most of the storms in her life except the last, which resulted in her suicide. He was unable, perhaps, to advise her on business matters, or did his sage counsel fall on deaf ears?
Smarting under the insults heaped on her by powerful individuals in the industry, she acted in haste and took up film production. She was, in the language of the Mafia, being set up. Her productions failed at the box-office, or possibly were made to; she was landed with huge debts. Unable to cope with the reversals, she killed herself. She said in her suicide note, “Nobody cared for me or treated me like a human being, only Dr Ramakrishna did.” The Dirty Picture uses an easy kind of
psychological shorthand. Reshma/Silk, unable to take Surya Kant’s rejection, decides to take him on by producing her own films. It is made out as if she fails due to her own inexperience and changing audience tastes. This may not have been the truth about the real Silk Smitha. In the film she goes out of the world on a note of defiance. In the real story, it is likely that she died broken and saddened beyond words. Comparisons between the film and the purpose that inspired it ought to end here, but not without a final word to explicate the matter. It is all right to have a smoking, drinking, randy, ambitious woman reach the top after a start in dire poverty. But it is compulsory to see her tumble down February | 2012
after reaching the pinnacle, and die in the process. Her death, according to the current norms of desi feminism in Hindi cinema, must appear to be heroic, as in the case of The Dirty Picture. The director and his script-writer may argue that their film is not about Silk Smitha but “inspired” by a woman like her. Luthria’s film seems to tell us that whatever you do as a woman in India to improve your lot, the dice is heavily loaded against you. This is, in a way, a confirmation of the status quo. Caveats aside, Vidya Balan is superb as Reshma/Silk, as is Naseeruddin Shah. The supporting cast is uniformly good, though Emraan Hashmi as Abraham, the director who hates and loves her, hams it up.
A barren land despite the greenery Coffee-rich Coorg gets an average of 15 lakh tourists a year, but itâ€™s plagued by a long-term joblessness that is forcing young people to migrate to the cities to repair their fortunes TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MOHAN RAMAMOORTHY
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here was a time when night came early to Marathahalli. That’s no longer true. Nostalgic old-timers recall the days when it was unspoilt and largely untouched by urbanisation. A green, sleepy village with its own lake surrounded by trees, it was a picture-perfect example of the rural idyll. Not so long ago, Bengaluru was something residents discussed, but they didn’t think of themselves as belonging to the city. Now, shops of all sizes and shapes and high-rise apartments have changed its skyline. Unlike the restless farmers of smouldering Singur, Marathahalli’s residents did not resist change. For that matter, was there a choice? Rising real estate prices and the prospect of new jobs and business proved irresistible. As the rural idyll vanished so did the separation from the state capital. Abythmangala village in Coorg district (though the indigenous name Kodagu has been officially adopted, the former continues to very popular) is just a few hours away. Over the decades it hasn’t changed much. With a population of just over 1,200 it doesn’t even have much potential for commercial activity. And it’s the same story for other villages between Madikeri and Gonikoppal and Kushal Nagar in the plains. The scenic coffee plantations attract plenty of tourists—mostly domestic and largely youngsters from hot and happening Bengaluru—but the villages seem unchanged by their passage. At the new and clean satellite bus station on Mysore Road, young people with their backpacks and fancy mobile phones wait for the high-tech luxury bus to Madikeri as 2011 draws to an end. Mukul is one of them. His story is a familiar one. He just wants a break from the stress.
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Stacking hay at the farm February | 2012
Mogi's mother Devi at the tribal village. February | 2012
“The humdrum city, the monotonous job, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, it gets on my nerves. I need to get out every once in a while. Either it’s a Sakleshpur trek or a drinking and eating binge in Coorg. I’m addicted to neer dosai and pork—though at times scared of tapeworms,” he smiles. He’s among about 15 lakh tourists, mostly domestic, to the district. The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation’s bus and most of its passengers seem to be in a world far removed from the nondescript villages dotting the empty landscape that they pass through. Mukul is fiddling with his mobile. First he plays a video, then listens to some songs. In the middle of the night he sends and receives a stream of text messages. The staccato, subdued beeps often punctuate the silence in the air-tight interiors. Outside, it’s noisy. Then he flaunts his new Tablet and its brightness draws others’ attention. He’s having fun with technology. At Abythmangala, the young and handsome Rohith Aswa could be a cousin of Mukul. In his smart blue jeans, pastel T-shirt and grey jacket he looks much
like Mukul. But that’s where the similarity ends. Rohit has just a smattering of English and he doesn’t want to speak it, saying he feels awkward. He knows what the Internet is, but doesn’t know how to use a computer. But he displays remarkable skill with his mobile phone. Rohit dropped out after high school and for a while worked as a semi-skilled instrumentation technician in Pune. “I didn’t have any formal training,” he says. He just picked up some technical skills on the job. Unexpectedly, family circumstances took a turn for the worse. He’s reluctant to give details. “Due to some personal and family problems I had to return.” Since there’s no industry in the region, he can’t work as a technician. “I joined a 120-acre coffee estate as assistant manager”. He’s a supervisor who oversees the labourers and gets paid about `5,000. You see a number of young people— with different levels of education—in Coorg often whiling away their time. Between Siddapura and Chettali we stop at a couple of tiny towns—each with a few small shops—some not larger than 10 feet by 10 feet. They mostly cater to the locals and the
Business? Hardly anything. For an old man like me, who really can’t do anything else, it’s okay to run this shop. For anything less than `100 they come to my shop. For more than `100, they go to Siddapura. For things that cost less than `1,000 they go to Madikere. For bigger shopping they go to Mysore or Bengaluru. That’s why the hills are so underdeveloped — Aboobacker, a shop owner February | 2012
occasional tourist who stops by. Young people like Rohit’s friends hang out in these towns.
No decent jobs
RTI activist Chandan says most of them can’t find “decent”—read white-collar —jobs in the hills. “There are few options—work in the coffee plantations as supervisors, or take bank loans and buy a tourist vehicle, or else join the military or the police.” As supervisors, they get to ride jeeps and boss plantation labourers, but being a tourist taxi driver gives them an opportunity to interact with city folk. It indeed is more glamorous and perceived to be fun and adventurous. Rohit’s brother is in a para-military unit. Coorgis are known to be strong and brave. The local chieftains roped in Gowdas from the nearby plains in their armies, while later the British enlisted the locals to strike a balance. Every other Kodava and Gowda family here has someone in the military, para-military or state police. “That’s because with minimal education and good physique you can get into the army. And you get away from the hills and go far away in search of adventure. There’s a lot of respect for the armed forces. Parents are eager to give their daughters in marriage to a soldier,” says our cab driver, often the most trusted local source of journalists worldwide. Parents tell you proudly that their son is in the army or police—and rank really doesn’t matter. He could be a jawan or an officer, a constable or an inspector. Anuj, an estate labourer, spent `60,000-70,000 February | 2012
to send his son to the army. Aboobacker has a small shop selling cigarettes, cool drinks and groceries. That’s about the scale of commercial activity here. Like other traders in Coorg, he has migrated from Kerala. “Business? Hardly anything. For an old man like me, who really can’t do anything else, it’s okay to run this shop. For anything less than `100 they come to my shop. “For more than `100, they go to Siddapura. For things that cost less than `1,000 they go to Madikeri. For bigger shopping they go to Mysore or Bengaluru. That’s why the hills are so underdeveloped and can’t provide jobs for locals,” he says scratching his grey beard. Local youths have little choice but to migrate to the city in search of work. On the face of it, it’s a strange dilemma, because both tourism and coffee should generate big money. But apparently no one knows what happens to the money. That’s one of the main reasons for Coorg’s underdevelopment. The money is not spent locally. “I don’t know where the plantation and tourism money goes. But there are no jobs for young people here. My son has gone off to Dubai to work as a driver,” says Aboobacker. Coorg has strong ties with Bengaluru. While the poor and middle classes go to the city to earn money, the patricians from the hills spend their money in the city. It’s a search for better-paid jobs in one case and pursuit of “happiness” in the other. The city’s young, smart set go to the hills to unwind, so you’d expect that to
push the economy further. These are young people who earn big money and spend it, too, most of it in the city. It fuels the growth of retail markets and services, but they also divert a trickle to these bucolic spots. Ironically, even the little they spend in Coorg—as rent for home stay or on food—eventually finds its way back to the city. “Along with a group of friends, I went to Coorg in 2003. Besides spending on stay in a government tourism lodge, we hardly spent any money, as we would have done in the city in one evening,” recalls Eshwar Sundaresan, author of Bangalored—The Expat Story. On a bus to Kushal Nagar there’s a group of college students from Kochi. What brings them to Coorg when Kerala itself is so green? One of them said: “Oh, it’s the cool and pleasant weather and bingeing on liquor and pork. Also, away from our families”. Each spent less than a thousand on sightseeing, local travel by bus and food and beverage. On the other hand, a coffee estate owner says: “We go to Bengaluru for shopping. Clothes, consumer durables, anything that costs over a thousand”. In the large plains town of Kushal Nagar, the owner of a small eatery has an interesting take on outward migration and inward tourism. “The city people make a lot of money, live in high-class apartments. They have all the good things and comforts. When they get bored with city life, they come to the hills. They stay in good resorts and home stays. Here they can enjoy the greenery, fresh air and clear streams. It’s February | 2012
Ramesh and his wife Kusumavathi too are unsure about the future. Their children Varun and Reshma are in high school. Varun wants to be a chartered accountant and work in a large city. ‘I told him not to depend on agriculture,” says Ramesh. Varun explains: ‘I’m not interested in agriculture after seeing the hardships my parents faced.’
good ‘time pass’ for them. “We locals don’t get to make money. So we flee to the cities. But our poverty follows us. We end up in slums and work as better-paid semi-skilled or unskilled workers. The rich remain rich and the poor remain poor,” he sighs. An estate owner put it differently. “We have the best of both worlds. We live in large spacious houses with modern material comforts. We also get the clean and green surrounding.” Sums up Eshwar Sundaresan: “The poor suffer the most in the city. Even the police decision to curb night life hit the poor—they can’t get a bus in the night to return home from work. Or, after a long and tiring day in sweatshops, they can’t have a bite in one of the cheap roadside eateries. Bangalore shuts early, but that doesn’t stop the hep folks from partying hard in the night”.
Why just the one?
If Marathahalli can change, and change out of recognition, why not Abythmangala and other villages in Coorg? One reason is obviously Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley or “knowledge hub of Asia”. Like the snake in the old classic game its appetite is insatiable. The city has gobbled up “halli-s” (village in Kannada) and “kere-s” (lake), besides “sandra-s”, “pete-s”, “pur-s” and “palya-s”. Marathahalli, located on the HosurSarjapur road in East Bangalore, was once just such a village on the rim of a sedate Pensioner’s Paradise and a hub of public sector behemoths that employed thousands of middle-class white collar employees. February | 2012
“Now it represents the new, youthful, fashionable and prosperous Bengaluru,” says Eshwar Sundaresan. Marathahalli is indeed a microcosm of the city’s new fortunes. Glittering new shopping centres seduce customers with irresistible discounts—and are in turn surrounded by high-rise apartment complexes whose residents come from every other part of India. There’s only a sprinkling of Kannadigas. Most of them arrived in the last decade—some earlier—to work in the software services industry. Young, single and independent professionals with high disposable surplus are swarming the newer parts of the city. Their newfound freedom, the consequent uninhibited swagger, the high adrenalin and the rage of hormones can stump a provincial soul. It’s these professionals who catalysed the city’s exponential growth. The swanky malls and multiplexes and eclectic eateries came up to cater to their appetites. And these again are job-creating hubs for thousands more from other states. At the bottom of the migration pyramid are the construction workers and domestic helps, poor people from the rural south and even poorer people north of the Vindhyas. Latest of all are people from the north-eastern states, with their distinct looks. I go to Marathahalli to buy a camera. In the old days, we’d have had to go to the city, MG Road in fact. At Staples, the array of electronic gadgets, stationery and travel accessories is mindboggling; almost infinite choice. The shop assistant asks me to enter
my contact details in a register. But the buying is the least of it. Spend an hour at these shops and you’ll learn a few things. In that hour, at each counter a dozen or so credit cards are swiped. Each bill is anything from a few hundred rupees to several thousand. One of the first photos I take with my new toy is a nearby building—on the ground floor is a pizzeria, part of a global chain, and a swanky gym on the first floor. “First you eat the fat and then sweat it out to burn it,” says my friend, a senior journalist. They are conveniently adjacent. Delhi Durbar in Kundalahalli is a small, “affordable” eatery for north Indians who miss their cuisine. A meal for two—with chicken—costs about `200. There are less than a dozen tables, but they’re mostly occupied. Besides, the cash counter is recording take-away, and another person is rushing “door delivery” packets. Ballpark calculations on a paper napkin show `5,000-`6,000 changing hands in an hour on a weekend evening. You can multiply this almost to infinity, given that so many people are shopping, eating and drinking at the same time in this small place.
It’s a staggering thought, so much money circulating in this one little corner of Bengaluru. Maybe that’s why there’s so little left over for the Abythmangalas. Deepika is a new age panchayat member. She’s 25, attractive, articulate and has a modern outlook. In 2010, she contested the gram panchayat elections and won. “In the beginning, it was difficult. My own relatives in politics opposed my decision. There’s petty politics here and it’s difficult to do good work.” Like other youths in Abythmangala and elsewhere, Deepika is a drop-out, though she was “very much interested in higher studies”. Life changed once she became a panchayat member. “Earlier I was just at home and didn’t know much about the problems of our villagers. Now I go around and get to know the issues”. Chandan, her husband, encourages her to take an active part in the local body. So what are the major problems? “Water and roads. Electricity. One problem unique to the hills is the landholding system. Owners of fields and coffee plantations don’t allow roads through their land, which denies access to others who hold land in the interiors.”
Some of us are employed by the forest department to take care of elephants. Our boys drop out of school at the first opportunity to do the elephant rides for the tourists
—Mogi, who lives in a tribal hamlet
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Chandan chips in to elaborate: “That’s because of historical reasons—land was gifted by the British or the local chieftains. In some case they were allowed to occupy government land for cultivation —called Jamma Baane lands. So, there are issues relating to access”. Education is a major problem, especially the high drop-out rate. “But even if you graduate from college, there are no good jobs. So educated young people go to the cities. Often, some can’t leave their families, small holdings and aged and ailing parents. So you see them hang around, doing nothing. On top of it, alcoholism is rampant in the hills. The young take to liquor easily, because it’s okay to drink. Everyone here drinks.” But it’s not just the villagers who complain. “We still live in a village, I guess” my Marathahalli hostess exclaims. The sarcasm can’t be missed. She lists a litany of woes living in Kundalahally, near Marathahalli. Despite exorbitant rents —rising 20-25 per cent annually—the infrastructure is terrible. The contrast between luxury interiors and the squalor outside is glaring. At my friend’s place, I end the day playing a little game with eight-year-old Anshuman. He’s like any other city kid in a “good” English-medium school. He speaks English fluently and knows about the most-advertised products. Anshuman is as immersed in consumerism as any other urban kid constantly bombarded by advertisements.
Smart and smarter
It’s a simple game. Each takes turns to tell the name of an automobile. When February | 2012
one runs out of names, he loses and the winner must name one more to win. Anshuman insisted that the winner gets a chocolate of his choice. Once we are through with the popular ones, Anshuman’s parents begin to help with clues. “Chennai uncle’s car” —it was a Logan. Or, “The car you travelled in when you went to Granma’s village”—it was a Qualis. I stump him with the luxury Porsche Cayenne (costing over half a crore rupees) I saw in his city. After a few more rounds, I run out of names. To win, Anshuman has to tell one more name. “Maruti 800”, he says triumphantly holding up the fine, dark Cadbury Bournville. Its tagline—“You have to earn it, not just buy it”—crossed my mind. Recall value? The products are available in far-flung Coorg as well, and children and young adults are as aware as their city cousins. What they lack is the rattle of fluent English which puts them at a disadvantage. Bengaluru’s cosmopolitanism has its roots in Nehru’s vision of modern India but it’s a far cry from the days of Nehru. For instance, Prabhu’s father migrated to Bangalore from a small Madras Presidency town in the Fifties to work in a Central government department, spent his retirement and died before the information technology wave hit. Prabhu who worked in HMT is now retired and ambivalent about the ever-changing city, while his son, in the flourishing service sector, simply loves it. “There was a time when HAL seemed back of the beyond,” recalls Prabhu. In Coorg, the last three-four generations of farmers have seen more downs
The Rajapalayam and the porker family. When he grows up the hound will be a hunter
than ups. Nearly 70 per cent are middle class. But owners of small and medium coffee estates have seen their holdings shrink as siblings set up on their own. “My grandfather had a fairly large estate, but after divisions over two generations, I have a mid-size estate,” says M R Ramesh of Abythmangala. N C Bopiah of Cherala Sri Mangala near Chettalli says: “The smaller the holding, the more difficult profitable agriculture”. Besides fragmentation, price fluctuations are another major worry. Earlier, they were under the Coffee Board which managed the marketing. Now there are many intermediaries and small and medium plantation owners are exposed to the vagaries of the global market. It’s both threat and opportunity. If they have the entrepreneurial wherewithal, they can directly access lucrative westFebruary | 2012
ern markets. Then there are complaints about high labour costs and unpredictable income. “We sowed paddy last season,” says Ramesh. “Instead of the usual 40 quintals, we got 20. We spent `40,000 and got only `22,000.” But there upsides as well. For instance, as pepper prices are going up they’ve made money from it in the last few years. Still, it’s a hard life and the rewards uncertain.
Studies in contrast
Contrast this with Prabhu’s family where the annual income has been increasing over generations. “My father couldn’t easily come to terms when he saw his grandson’s offer letter. The annual salary was more than the total retirement benefits of the grandfather,” Prabhu recalls. The story is different for the Bopaiahs.
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Tribal children with their pups. February | 2012
“My grandfather, I guess, did well. He had a large plantation and cheap labour. Now we have a smaller farm and labour is more expensive. Agriculture is becoming very unpredictable and often we suffer losses”. But Bopaiah and his wife Arunakshi are determined to succeed. “We work hard. We do a lot of work ourselves to save costs because labour is expensive. We grow coffee and paddy. That’s not enough. So for extra income we started a nursery. It means more work for us. But it pays,” says Arunakshi. The couple are planning to buy a car. Their daughters Yogyashree and Hemashree are in high school. Yogyashree is a good singer while Hemashree had won several trophies in dance competitions. Studying in a “convent” school (that’s what English medium schools are called), they converse in English unlike their parents who are more comfortable in Kannada. Talking about underdevelopment in the region, Arunakshi says, “I am keen on my daughters learning classical music and dance. But there are no teachers. That’s when I think we should have been in a big city like Bengaluru where children can learn many things which would help in their progress in life”. Yogyashree and Hemashree have no complaints. But one thing parents and children are more or less agreed upon: the children may not stay in the hills. Ramesh and his wife Kusumavathi too are unsure about the future. Their children Varun and Reshma too are in high school. Varun wants to be a chartered accountant and work in a large city. “I told him not to depend on agriculture,” says Ramesh. Varun explains, “I’m not interested in agriculture after seeing the hardships my parents faced”. Reshma, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, says, “There are good schools and even a college, but no jobs.” So why isn’t there a large software company like Infosys here? “That is something you must ask Narayanamurthy,” quipped her uncle. The family owns a car and a bike and seems somewhat more prosperous than the Bopaiah family. When
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Bootlegging is the only way he knows to supplement his pension.
I clicked their pictures, the children of both families asked me if I would post them on FB (Facebook). The Ramesh family is celebrating the arrival of a white Rajapalayam pup. Ramesh’s wife and daughter are cuddling it. The pup will grow up a hunter. In Coorg, hunting is a major pastime. “Now that it has drizzled, many small animals will come out into the open. Tonight, many people will go hunting,” says Chandan.
The tribal poverty trap
Chandan is an anti-corruption and RTI activist, resident of Abythmangala and executive director of the Association for Social Transperency, Rights and Action (ASTRA). He asks: “Are you looking for poverty? Only among tribals in the forests. In Coorg you can’t find poverty worth writing about in the media. Even the plantation labour look ok.” I didn’t tell him that I would rather leave the subject to the professional poverty-hunter. Early in the morning I’m near a small, sleeping town on the ghat road. It’s dark, cold and lonely. There’s not a soul in sight. It’s eerie and the silence is creepy. Suddenly a stray dog barks loudly at a
shadow. The day is yet to begin. Welcome to Coorg, reads a signboard. Orange County, reads another with an arrow pointing to the direction and distance in to the uber-luxury resort. On the way is one of the few Tata coffee estates. It’s not only the end of the week but also the end of 2011. Droves of tourists from Bengaluru and other cities are flocking to the hills for a vacation. The resorts and home stays are full, my friend says. Green and hilly Coorg is a favourite weekend getaway. It’s lush and lovely and everyone looks prosperous, so few of the weekend migrants know the story of prolonged unemployment and general hopelessness among the young. Take Dubare, it’s a favourite with trippers. Boating, river-rafting and elephant rides, it’s all there for them. This weekend, too, there are many tourists. “In the peak season the line of vehicles parked can be more than three kilometres. You can imagine the crowd,” says Umesh who operates a boating service. Just cross the river and walk a couple of hundred metres into the nearby forests—that is, if you are lucky not to be stopped by a forest guard—you will see
The government’s ambitious integrated tribal development programme seems to missing on all cylinders here. The only sign of modernity and state intervention is the solar lamps, which haven’t worked since they were installed. The solar panel and the battery in one place is still alive. Young tribals use it to charge their mobile phones! The simple fact is that there are no amenities worth the name February | 2012
a small tribal haadi (hamlet or settlement). About 90 tribal familes live here. “Some of us are employed by the forest department to take care of elephants. Our boys drop out of school at the first opportunity to do the elephant rides for the tourists,” says Mogi. His mother Devi is 80. Her vision is poor, possibly due to cataract. Brother Jediya does not work. He may be mentally retarded. His two married sisters work as farm labourers. “One of them goes for halt kelasa (works and stays in employer’s premises),” says Mogi. The government’s ambitious integrated tribal development programme seems to missing on all cylinders here. The only sign of modernity and state intervention is the solar lamps, which haven’t worked since they were installed. The solar panel and the battery in one place is still alive. Young tribals use it to charge their mobile phones! The simple fact is that there are no amenities worth the name. “We’ve asked the government to give us some land for farming. But if they give us land and regularise the hamlet they will have to provide electricity, roads and drinking water. So, they don’t,” says Mogi. His daughter goes to the nearby primary school.
That is why “I want her to work in the town in an office. There are others like me who don’t want our children to live like us. When we see all these people (tourists), I wonder how they get so much money to come here from faraway places. Only once in my life I went to Bengaluru, when a forest officer called me to do some work for him. There they don’t have much land—yet, how do they live so happily,” he wonders. “When I look at them, I think their life is so good and our life is so bad. I feel sad”. Mogi has never travelled in a train. “The (aero) plane looks so small when we see it here… but out there in the city it is so large.” Despite their aspirations, no tribal boy has been to college. It is the same story in several haadis in the district. “There are a couple of students who went to high school. But they all drop-out before completing high school,” says the teacher at the primary school. Lydia Pinto is the cheerful and committed teacher at the government school here. “About 10 years ago I started working in government schools for tribal children,” she says. “No child would come to class. Parents were reluctant to send them. The children fighting and swear at each other. Mostly, they were
We work hard. We do a lot of work ourselves to save costs because labour is expensive. We grow coffee and paddy. That’s not enough. So for extra income we started a nursery
—Bopaiah, third generation plantation owner
February | 2012
unhygienic. I used to wonder how I got stuck in this place”. Not any longer. “In all these years I have seen such brilliant students—given a chance many of them will excel. I don’t have lofty ideals for them. I just want to make sure that they know how to read and write, be clean, learn to mingle with others in a civilised way. If they do, I wlll be satisfied.” What about Mogi’s dreams of sending his daughter to an office job? “Maybe it will take one or two generations for tribals to get good jobs.” Tourists to Dubare on an average spend about `200 per head on boat rides and elephant rides. “So much money is collected from the tourists. Where does it go? Why doesn’t the government spend a part on the development of the hamlet and the tribals who take care of the elephants?” asks an indignant Chandan. Even though tourism has not brought development to Mogi’s hamlet, the roads laid for tourists have improved the lives of tribals closer to “mainstream” villages. A tribal village a few kilometres from Siddapura town has a few pucca houses built under the Indira Awas Yojana. That still doesn't hide its griminess. It’s afternoon and only the jobless, the sick and ailing, the old looking after the children are around. An old man— about 80 and with poor vision—is sitting outside his hut listening to a transistor radio. He has no family. His brother’s family takes care of him. “Who are you? Government officers or
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police,” he asks aggressively. “I’m scared of no one. Yes, I sell liquor,” he says defiantly. He buys 10 bottles of IMFL and sells it to locals. “I buy a bottle for `45 and sell it for `60. I sell about 10 bottle in three days,” he explains his revenue model. He also gets `400 as the government old age pension. “What do I do with `400? It is not a lot of money, is it?” “On the radio they say the government is spending thousands of rupees on us—but we don’t get any of it,” he complains bitterly. Gowri ajji (grandmother) has come to visit her relative—a young man who has a head injury in an accident. “He can’t go to work and his wife is too young to work,” she says pointing to a girl barely in her early teens. His mother-in-law has gone to work instead. Another young woman butts in and says bitterly, “Everyone comes and asks about us, takes pictures and sometimes give us a rupee or two and our children a biscuit packet or two,” and adds cynically, “I think the outsiders want the hills to be green so that they can come and enjoy. Maybe they also want our people and our huts to remain the same. Otherwise why isn’t anything being done to change our lives…” Gowri ajji hushes her and continues: “There was a time when our people would flee into the jungles when they heard the sound of a car or a jeep. Yes, things have changed a bit. See, how this young woman can now tell you a thing or two. I don’t know if it is all for good”.
The woman who shot history Indiaâ€™s first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla, died on January 15. She leaves behind black & white snapshots, many of them iconic, of a time and people that shaped the destiny of the country. In this 19-year old unpublished interview she speaks at length about herself, of the post-partition riots at Connaught Place and why she gave up photography in the 1970s. PHOTOGRPAHS: THE HOMAI VYARAWALLA ARCHIVE/ ALKAZI COLLECTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY
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omai Vyarawalla (1913-2012) was perhaps the first Indian photojournalist of renown. Where talent was concerned she compared with the best Indian photojournalists. Her work had an intimacy scarcely evident in the pictures of her male colleagues. She was, in a sense, the predecessor of the great American woman documentary photographer Ruth Orkin, and as poetic in her visual expression. When we—Kajal Das, Satish Sharma, both of them photographers, art historian and teacher Kavita Singh and I—first met her in 1993, both she and her sterling contribution to Indian documentary photography had been forgotten. Satish Sharma, brilliant photographer and bona fide eccentric, had stumbled upon her work and was astonished by it. He quickly talked to the people in the Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi and mounted an exhibition. It was a uniformly excellent show and took the cognescenti by complete surprise. None of the so-called lovers of photography knew of her. Her “news” pictures had both an endearing and enduring quality. These two qualities were as short in supply then as they are now. Raghu Rai, already an internationally known photographer, superb exponent of modern dance Chandralekha and her boon companion Sadanand Menon, a widely read journalist, were among the people who saw Homai Vyarawalla’s exhibition then. Edited transcript of the conversation: How and when did you get interested in photography? Well, in Art School, I was interested only in painting and music. But then I met my husband and he was keenly interested in photography. He did his
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A fashion show at the British High Commission. Delhi, 1960s February | 2012
own developing. He had no facilities, no electricity, so he would go under the four-post bed, covering the whole thing with blankets, and with a little kerosene lamp develop his films, take POP prints and find out which pictures were nice and then send those. The first pictures he took got published. That gave him the incentive to do more. He was studying at Vyara, that is where he came from, that is why my surname is Vyarawalla. What was his full name? Manekshaw Jamshetji Vyarawala. He came to Bombay after matriculation and there we met. He was staying with my uncle and I was next door. Naturally we started talking about things. And I got interested in photography. Being interested in art also, there was going to be one picnic and I said to myself why don’t I take pictures? So I asked him to lend me his Rolliflex. Very reluctantly he gave it, because he was afraid I might spoil it. One full day I was after him, what exposure do I give for this light, what exposure for inside, and this and that. I learnt it that way—the exposures. And then I took pictures at the picnic, it was full sunlight so it was not so difficult. And I came back with six or seven rolls of 12 exposures each, because the girls and the boys wanted—there were 75 people and everybody wanted pictures—so I went on taking pictures. Film was so cheap those days. He developed the films and he found certain pictures very interesting. So he sent them to the Bombay Chronicle. And a full page of pictures came in the Bombay Chronicle. And I got one rupee per picture from the paper. February | 2012
What year was that? Probably between ’35 and ’40. So that’s how it all started... Yes, we liked each other, we started moving around together—my mother didn’t object—taking pictures and that way we got more and more interested... You had only one camera... Yes, if I saw a good angle I would say, give me, this is my picture. Like that, we would go on. He was interested in street scenes and then Diwali came and we went about taking pictures of the streets. We used to go with big lights, and people thought it was good shakun, (good omen) to have lights brought into the shop when the puja was going on, so they would give us sweets, treat us like royalty, and then say, would you give us the pictures? The next day we would go to them with the pictures and they used to feel happy about it. That way we increased our area of work. Where was he working? The Times of India—in the job department, but this was his hobby. And on Sundays and Saturdays, I used to miss school. I don’t think I ever attended school on Saturday. In those days we had half-days on Saturdays and my teachers were very good. I would sit down in front of them and write in the name of my mother saying, my daughter is very busy tomorrow so please give her off and I would give it to the teacher. They would threaten me saying, I will give it to the principal! We would go off
The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama walking across the border into India. Sikkim, 1956
to the suburbs. We walked everywhere, those days there was no transport, and tried to take pictures of everything that caught our eye. We made series of different cottage industries, dhobis washing clothes, weavers, even the bullocks and the buffaloes. Were you also discussing technique and the like... I was not discussing technique, I was absolutely against technique; all I wanted to know was how the camera worked and what exposures to give. You never discussed why a photograph is good, why another is not? That we discussed, and then my training in art school was useful while enlarging pictures at the easel and composing pictures. We would discuss a frame, you February | 2012
know like that. Then we started supplying pictures to the papers also, all over India, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and then abroad. The government of India didn’t have a photographic section. When they saw our pictures, they liked then, wanted copies of them—they would order 15 copies of each picture, we worked through the nights... To make the prints... Yes, we didn’t have a glazing machine, we used to glaze them on glass sheets and near the fireplace, my mother would be standing near the angeethi, to see that the pictures didn’t fall into the fire, catch them as they came out... the bathroom was our darkroom. After everybody had used the bathroom we would enter the place, take a big stool there, put the en-
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larging machine on top of it, he would be sitting on the one side of it and I on the floor developing the prints. When did you come to Delhi? In 1942, we had no idea we were coming to Delhi, we were happy with the work. Then, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the British had to run. So they wanted to make Delhi their headquarters, they also wanted to put up a dark room, studio and build a photographic section because they had to supply (photographs) to all the Commonwealth countries. The administrative officer came to Bombay, to the editor of the Illustrated Weekly, Stanley Jackson, asking him whom to keep as a photographer. I was publishing a lot of pictures in the Weekly and the editor was very fond of my work. So they called my husband and the administrator asked him, have you got any of the pictures, and he took out the blind school pictures and that man said I will keep him, and then he said I want an assistant photographer also. The editor said, his wife... I didn’t know that man and he didn’t know who I was and yet I was taken in. I was in the family way, so my husband said she can’t come for four months or so —that man said, never mind, in the meantime you set up the darkroom and start working. So my husband said she will stay on in Bombay and take pictures for you, wartime pictures, so they started having that magazine going, my husband doing the dark room work there and I would be sending films to Delhi for processing and publishing, so till the last day, the ninth Connaught Place, New Delhi. 1950s February | 2012
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month I was taking pictures. I had gone to the hospital and there was a Parsi matron there, and I would be climbing tables for taking pictures... so when my husband came she told him, please for goodness sake ask her not to climb tables. Were you then working exclusively with the Rolli or using the Speedgraphic? No Speedgraphic, only the Rolli and the Contax. The Speedgraphic much later, in Delhi. After you came to Delhi… When my son was three months old, I came to Delhi on December 25, and after two or three months I started going to the office. I was living in a building just behind where they had set up the headquarters—Malhotra building in Connaught Place. I had tremendous freedom of movement—I could go home anytime—I could come late to office. So even with my son it was no trouble at all. Then the office shifted to the barracks near India Gate. My colleagues were so cooperative—whenever my son was not well or some problem, they would say bring him here. So they would be playing with my son while I was working. I was very fortunate. About two photographs of the D-day celebrations... They were taken immediately after the war. There were soldiers from England, America, the allied forces, they organised the celebrations and the procession passed just under our house and that’s February | 2012
(Above) Mahatma Gandhiâ€™s third son, Ramdas, lighting the pyre at Rajghat. February 1, 1948. (On page 112-113) Aerial View of the Republic Day Parade in Delhi taken from the top of India Gate in 1951. February | 2012
how we were able to take those pictures. You were the only woman photographer working at that time (independence). Yes, woman press photographer. Around the same time, Marguerite Bourke-White was also in India... Yes she was here at the time Mahatmaji died... Did you meet her ? No, I didn’t meet her, but I saw her working, using Rolliflex and Speedgraphic. She had her own way of taking pictures—on the stand, with a cloth thrown over her head and three or four Indians buzzing around her... Things were happening so fast, when Mahatmaji died, putting his body on the cortege and all that—din and bustle all around. Were you there? Yes, I had taken pictures, there was an outhouse, right in the front, there was no staircase going up—only this pipe—sanitary pipe. So we climbed that. The photographers were helping each other with camera and equipment. So we went to the top and took pictures. She was taking pictures from ground level—so how was it possible for her to get the real thing? Life magazine which had commissioned Bourke-White, couldn’t use her pictures, they used Cartier-Bresson's pictures. You designed some lenses and modified the cameras according to your needs, for example, the wide angle. February | 2012
I felt the need for it. At that time there was this disposal stock, American disposal stock all over the place, there were lenses also. My husband would go and bring the lenses and then we sat down with this sardarji—we would tell him do it this way, do it that way, and he would make them in pieces and bring them in the evening and ask if it was all right. We would suggest some modifications. What was his name? Ajit Singh, he was a camera repairer— same with the wide angle lens. We didn’t have one and we didn’t want to disturb the Speedgraphic—so we asked the sardarji if this can be done, he said, why not? Why did you feel the need for a wide angle? I used to go to the embassies—they were being built. Some of them wanted pictures of the interiors, they used to call experts from their countries and they would ask me for pictures. Naturally, wide angle lens was required for wall-towall pictures. Once I went to the Norweigian embassy to take pictures and the ambassador happened to come there. He saw the camera and went to the counsellor and said, ‘Will she be able to get any pictures out of this?’ I said, you don’t like them, you call another photographer. I worked through the night and got the pictures ready. I look the pictures along; they were very pleased. So the ambassador came to me and said, ‘I liked the pictures but you're working at a disadvantage. Why don't
you get the latest cameras?’ I said, we are not supposed to import cameras—in those days we were not. So he said, why don’t you give me the names of all the things you want and I’ll get them in my name. I said, no, that would be cheating. He was surprised. Your photographs were different from those of your contemporaries, they revealed something more, for example the photograph Zhou Enlai, Nehru and the Panchen Lama (page 115), one can feel the tension, almost touch it. Well, that was an exclusive photograph, I was the only photographer, you know, there was this dinner, and no other photographer was allowed. Another (page 119) is at Gandhiji's funeral—what strikes one as most interesting in your photograph where the pyre February | 2012
is there in the centre and 8-9 people sitting around the pyre, looking at you, and one man at the centre is very conscious of the way he is being photographed—it seems some people were there because they just wanted to be there. Yes that’s right. His body was burning— on the periphery people had collected, puri pakodawalas, toywalas and all sorts of things. Here the body was burning, and there these people were eating... In the Fifties and Sixties, there were discussions about theory, particularly in the West, different schools of photography and movements were coming up, like the Magnum—Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson—were you aware? I kept out of all these. Your husband… No, he was in the High Commission all
the time—he was there till one year before his death. He worked for them for 28 years. I came out in 1951 and started freelancing. I was taking colour movies also—16mm for Associated Tubewells, a British concern. What were they about? Tubewells. We would go all over the countryside—making colour movies of the actual construction plus the surroundings and the village life which needed this—for nearly two years. In the course of your career you did a wide variety of work—not simply personalities. No, all kinds of work... life in general... We can say that you documented your time—what aspect of photography meant the most to you? Well I enjoyed taking pictures of VIPs, especially when all the VIPs from abroad started coming in, one after another... Starting with Marshal Tito. Marshal Tito and all of them. Those days were so glorious—every Indian was respected those days—they had such a high opinion of us for having won independence non-violently.
and my camera, we did what we liked... we never bothered about what other people thought about photography. Except, you know, these new things that kept coming out and my husband would read about that. He was very knowledgeable, about focal length and all those things, and he would try to explain to me, and I would say, no thank you, my camera and I are very good friends. Developing and printing, yes, I would learn and do it myself—beyond that no theory. I only know about films of different kinds because I had to use them, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. I told my husband one person knowing all the theory is good enough in the house. When you were shooting, what did you look for? Look for the subject, the image in my camera, a nice picture. What do you mean by a nice picture? I can’t describe a nice picture.
Did you also take pictures in the streets? Yes, we used to take pictures in the streets.
But you must know what you wanted. The expression of a person—the right expression. If it is an occasion for sadness—that sad expression must be on his face and his whole attitude should express that sadness. If he was happy, like I have that picture of Pandit Nehru on the aeroplane as if he was the band master conducting the band.
Around the same time, Cartier-Bresson developed his now famous theory of decisive moment. To tell you the truth, I never bothered. I
But a lot of your pictures include a lot of other things by way of your own comment about a situation...No? How do I know? Maybe it comes natu-
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Top: The Chinese premier Zhou En-lai, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Dalai Lama during the celebrations to mark 2500 years of Buddhism. Delhi 1956; and A party at the Delhi Gymkahana Club in the 1950s February | 2012
rally and I don’t know about it. One thing which I have not seen in the work of any other Indian photographer is a consistent and a very subtle sense of humour. I never like making fun of people— however funny the thing happening—I would not photograph it. If by chance I photographed it, I would not publish it. The picture of Ho Chi Minh—I never got it published because I did not want to ridicule anybody. That would be ridiculing Ho. It is there in your personality, so it comes out through your camera. Maybe my camera was enchanted and it tried to get the best out of the people. You were here during the partition. Yes, of course. Did you photograph the riots? No, we were so busy trying to save our flat. That time I was working for the British High Commission. We were the only two in charge of the photographic section. So either I had to be there or my husband. Whoever went to the office took our son along and one would stay at home—otherwise we would have lost our flat, and everything, because people started pouring in to take possession. The flat next door was occupied by the landlord himself, a Muslim. Upstairs all Muslims, so naturally they thought when the Muslims had gone, we would come and occupy them. Those were difficult times. So many people came to burn the house down. And people imFebruary | 2012
mediately next to us wanted to take possession of the whole house. They would bribe the soldiers standing down there by sending big thalifuls of money— throw at them and they would pick up and turn their backs to the house and start walking away. Which soldiers were these? All Punjabis. It happened after the army was called in? Army was called in—some policemen, some soldiers—you know everybody was there to guard the whole Connaught Place. Even the army men were taking bribes? Haan! Policemen, army, you know, whoever was thrown the money would just pick it up and start going towards the middle. By the time they came back everything would be finished on this side. There was Hayat’s furniture shop, he made furniture for the Rajas. He had the best of wood, best of wool, cotton and coir, everything inflammable inside. We kept a big tub full of water. So when they came to do some mischief we would rush down and help the old man. Later, we advised him to put all the furniture on top—the second floor. And you know that is how Janaki Das came—he and his sons came and occupied this place—because the shop was empty. Which shop? Where Janakidas is, that was Hayat’s Shop. So they occupied it first, when the landlord’s family had been taken to Purana Qila because they were in danger
of being killed. We were neighbours so we would deliberately go and stand outside because people knew we were Parsis. If anybody asked me where are they, the reply was, ‘they have gone’, but they would be inside. When the landlord’s son came for some sort of agreement that over the shop, they took out a big khanjar (dagger) and said you sign this here, that you are giving up the shop in exchange for whatever it is. So this is how they got the shop—and they were called, you know, first citizens, things like that... When all these things were happening some people were killed in the corridors of the Place and Panditji came to know about it. I was standing on the balcony outside—I saw a car coming and suddenly Panditji jumped out. He went through the inner circle, then the outer. As he went there one person had a big sword in his hand—that was what I was told, I didn’t see it—trying to beat somebody. Panditji snatched the sword away from that man—then he saw things getting worse and changed the whole security set-up. He brought south Indians who didn’t know the language, didn’t know one sardar from the other, to “pichhe ekdam shanti ho gaya”. How long did the riots continue? About ten days or so, I can’t be so sure. Fortunately, we were told one day before the rioting started because my son—he was quite a favourite in the whole of Connaught Place—he used to go from one shop to another meeting people. One of the shopkeepers came to me and February | 2012
said, “Is bacche ko le kar yahan se chale jao” (Take the kid and go away from here). I asked: “Kyon chale jaen? Hum to yahan kam kar rahe hain—kya baat hai” (why, we work here, and what’s going on anyway)? “Achha! Tum nahi jaoge to kam se kam khane ki cheez ikattha kar rakkho, kal se buda din aayega” (Ok, if you won’t go away at least store some food because tomorrow is a big day). That’s what I was told. Who was doing this? Some Hindus. I think it was Beecham Printing Press people who told me, “Jao abhi jo kuchh mile khane ki cheez ikattha kar lo” (go and gather whatever food you can, now). Those days lots of canned food was available—disposal stock—so I told my husband. He had a hundred rupee note with him—we bought egg powder, baked beans, fish, this and that—one hundred rupees worth of stock. Next day everything was finished, all the shops were robbed. Who was in the mob? I wouldn’t know who they were but, you know, well-dressed women coming in jeeps to rob the shops of cosmetics and sarees—that we saw ourselves. Well-dressed women of high society—in those days there was Shahab Singh’s big cosmetic shop under us—all the foreign goods, the whole thing was looted. It was not the refugees who were doing this? No, “bahut kharab halat thi” (it was ter-
rible). We went to bed fully dressed. Those days I was wearing sarees, so I would go to bed fully dressed and pack some food for my son in a bag, so that we could move out at short notice. Didn’t you feel the tension—that something was brewing in the city? We knew something was going on. There was tension, but we could not guess that riots on such a big scale (would take place). What were the politicians doing? Squabbling among themselves. Sardar Patel was Home Minister. They were trying to control the whole thing. And the worst thing was people would come to our house to get possession of the flat in the name of Vallabhbhai Patel—with forged signatures. Some took the fittings away. You didn’t take pictures? “Kahan se picture lein? Bas khali office ka kam karke wapas aa jate the” (How? What we did was finish office work and return home). Well, after the riots stopped you didn’t take pictures? No, no pictures. Well, it might strike you as a very obvious question but what was the period like? Suspicion... everyone was suspecting the other but somehow or other we felt free, because we did not belong to that particular community and we had no axe to grind. So we didn’t feel that frightened. February | 2012
But other people who knew us—never approached us and asked us—knowing fully well that we were in a Muslim house. Something changed decisively after that. Coming back to photography, you gave it up in the Seventies. When did you start thinking about giving up and why? My son was at that time at Kharagpur, doing his PhD in chemical engineering. He had only one year left and my husband died in 1969. So I said to myself—I had done so much work—so long as my son was there I carried on. Just like that... I had had enough. Things had become a little difficult with security—then the behaviour of photographers all around, the new lot coming in—no honesty about their work. In the end, people started looking down on us saying bloody photographers. They not only did not know how to behave, they misbehaved—gatecrashing parties where they were not invited—just to get some money out of it. I would be an invited guest—press photographer—but the waiter wouldn’t come because the order was not to serve any photographer. So I said if you want to do work do it with respect. The political scene was also changing... New people coming in—who didn't know us. So if a photographer behaved badly he would be treated accordingly. So that official when he came to us would think we are of the same kind. He would be rude and then there would be fights. Why should one undergo all that? Then there was trouble about material. If you wanted hard paper you would get soft. If
Homai Vyarawalla holding her wooden Speed Graphic Pacemaker.
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you wanted glossy you would get matte. I also developed cataract and I found it difficult to see expressions on the face. You can’t shoot a nice picture without that. So I called another photographer for my son’s wedding. I had shot dozens of pictures of other people’s weddings. Another reason was over-importance of security that limited your access to VIPs? Yes, unnecessarily coming in, stopping us, you know, going forward. Which year was this? I don’t remember the year but it started with Mrs Gandhi… That’s when the politicians started changing. What was the change like? Well, they became aloof—there was this I am somebody sort of attitude. Humility was gone, graciousness was gone. I have a picture of myself taken with Subroto Mukherjee and Thimayya. They asked for that picture—they took my camera and asked somebody to take that picture. You know, that sort of attitude was there—and when they came to a dance party or something like that they would enjoy themselves—no stiff neck business. I was lucky in the sense that I stopped at the right moment and began at the right moment. Why was that the right moment to stop? Because I found that I could not get the things I wanted, I mean the pictures. I
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wanted exclusive pictures. Of all the pictures that I took you will not find the same thing with other people. Not the tonal values and all that, but the same subject taken by other people is different from my pictures. So mine was exclusive that way. In those days people were so liberal—when Babu Rajendra Prasad was declared president in the council hall he was sitting on that big chair and I wanted to take his pictures as the first President of India. In the council hall there is this white railing going round the dais where they all were sitting. It was always very prominent. If I stood there and took the picture that railing would be coming halfway. I said this is not the way to take a President’s picture. There was a table there for reporters, it was not occupied. I just got on to the table right in front of the President and took the picture. The MPs were shouting asking me to get down. So I took the picture and jumped down. The President was smiling and nobody reprimanded me or anything. Those were such times. How gracious people were. They knew I had a job to do and I was doing it, that’s all. (This conversation with Homai Vyrawalla was recorded On October 16, 1993 at Kavita Singh's Kailash Colony residence in New Delhi. Others present were Satish Sharma, Kajal Das and Partha Chatterjee.)
Notes on contributors Arun Ramkumar is a freelance cartoonist based in Chennai. He is a regular contributor to many publications.
Dynamic Action Group, an organisation that works to get Dalits justice in cases of caste violence.
Gokul Gopalakrishnan is a comic art researcher and an artist. Heâ€™s working on his PhD thesis on comic strips at the M G University, Kottayam. His comics appear regulalrly in many publications.
Ronny Sen is a freelance photographer based in Mumbai.
Mohan Ramamoorthy is an independent journalist. He lives in Chennai.
Salman Usmani is a freelance photojournalist based in Delhi. Shashank Acharya is an artist based in Mumbai
Partha Chatterjee is a freelance writer on the Arts based in Delhi.
Shivam Vij is a journalist based in Delhi. He is a fellow with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Washington DC.
Ram Kumar is a Dalit human rights activist based in Lucknow. He is with the
Srinath Perur is a freelance writer based in Bangalore.
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