Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Women changing rural India: Sarpanch Sahib

Common perception is that in spite of poverty and under-development, women in South Asia have played a much more active role in leadership and politics of their countries and their communities than in the western “developed” world. Persons like Sirimavo Bhandaranayike, Indira Gandhi, Sheikh Hasina, Benazir Bhutto, Mayawati and Aung San Kyi are responsible for this common perception. Yet, those who know the reality of our world, know that for most women, especially in rural areas, their lives are often closed in the boundaries of traditions, hidden behind veils, bound by rules of caste and class.

India started an experiment in 1993 to change this apparently immutable world of rural women by reserving certain election seats at village council level (Gram Panchayats) for them. At that time, many persons had thought that this would not change anything, men will continue to decide and rule as usual, using their wives or mothers or daughter-in-laws as a cover.

Initially almost all the women who entered the poltical arena because of this policy, were in some way forced by their families. Most of them did not receive any training for the roles they were asked to take on. Almost fifteen years later, it is perhaps time to take stock and understand how this change has worked out in practice and if indeed there has been a change?

Yes, in spite of all the cynicism and active obstruction by old political power-brokers, the experiment has started to bring about a change. “Sarpanch Sahib – Changing the face of India”, edited by Manjima Bhattacharjya (Harper Collins India with India Today and The Hunger Project, 2009), tells the stories of some such women who became presidents of their Gram Panchayats (village councils).

The stories of the book are told by women like Manju Kapur, Indira Maya Ganesh, etc. and are immensely readable. They talk of villages from different parts of India. To understand what these women went through and continue to pass through, what it means for them to live lives of poverty and yet strive for better governance against all odds, makes for a humbling experience.

I liked all the stories. They are succcess stories, even if they show that nothing is easy and at times, the idea of “success” does not quite express what they have achieved. They show that change in the unchanging world of rural poverty, could be almost imperceptible. Like the story of a person like Kenchamma, a dalit woman, who continues to shell betel nuts for a living, even while she is into her second term in the Gram Panchayat. Like this passage from her story:
Quite far removed from the Kenchamma of 1993, who cried in humiliation as she returned from her first meetings, bewildered and frustated at not being able to say anything. We were walking through the village and my eyes fall on her callused hands. She points to the skin of betel nut strewn in piles every where. She did four sacks yesterday. At 50 rupees a box she makes 200 rupees for the day. ...An uneducated Dalit woman has done for her village what seasoned political aspirants have not. But what has she got in return? What does one make of this strange sort of limbo? Thins have changed so much over one generation – from Cariappa’s to his daughter-in-law’s, yet they remain disturbingly unchanged.
Kenchamma has been president of the panchayat twice and is now a grudgingly respected member of the village community – respected by Dailts and Lingayats. But she is still a poor Dalit woman. As if being any other way would be improper. Improper not to live in a thatched, leaking mud hut, or to plaster her house, to not struggle for daily wages, improper to imagine other livelihoods, work not just for the village but make a career out of governance and use the 10 years of hands-on learning she has had. The boundaries have been pushed, but still only from the limits of the home to the village. Isn’t it enough that you have been allowed to reach this far, the voices seem to suggest?
I think that Kenchammas of this world are wise, they know that entrenched social hierarchies can react back with terrible fury if they feel that the status quo is being challenged. They know that they can not count on any one else to protect them. So they bide their time, they accept to continue to living lives of poverty and marginalisation, even while achieving small changes, providing education for their children. They are not aiming for revolutions, they are aiming for a change. Most of us from worlds far away from theirs, including many development experts, are frustrated with this path of slow change.

Perhaps we, or some of us, would have preferred revolutions?

I would recommend this book to everyone, especially those who think that they know India, that they are building the modern new India, that they are bringing in the progress. It would bring a sense of balance in what they think about themselves and gain some respect for those Kanchammas, working in far away places to bring small changes in rural India, taking personal risks that most of us wouldn't have the courage to take.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Migrating souls: Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala

Books and stories that talk about immigrant experience fascinate me. Stories about Indian immigrant experience, their second generations in their new homelands, fascinate me even more. I have realised that when I read them, I talk to myself all the time.

At one place in the book, Minal says, “Deep in the marrow of every story is a silence”. Perhaps, it is there, in that silence, that the reader and the author can meet and talk, about what was left unsaid and what can not be expressed in words. In that sense, it was particularly hard to read “Leaving India – my family’s journey from five villages to five continents”, because our parallel dialogue in that silence was at times so intense.

When I start realising that I am liking a book and that I would like to write about that it, I start bending the corners of those pages that have particular passages that touch me in a special way, so that when I write I go back and refer to those particular passages.

In “Leaving India”, I have marked so many pages, that if I try to write all the feeling they evoke in me, probably I will end up writing a bigger book. So I will not even attempt to write all those things.

I read it almost in one go, over a period of three days. And, I had to stop myself at times, to put aside the book and go for a small walk, just to think, and also to prolong the joy of reading it.

Minal’s family’s journey starts from five villages in south Gujarat, at a time when there was no state called “Gujarat”, in late nineteenth century. Poverty and dreams of making a mark in far away parts of the British empire, take away the men, leaving their wives with their children in Gujarat. Slowly, the wives also follow their husbands and then as fortunes of the empire change, and new opportunties arise, the emigrants change homes, searching for more hospitable lands where they can grow their families in peace and dignity.

Among all the stories, the one which touched me most was the story of Bhupendra and Bhanu, Minal’s parents, probably because I could empathise and understand more the kind of problems they went through. Among all the pages that I had marked, I have decided to take one passage from this part of the book that touches on the challenges and opportunities that emigration experience can give us:
In New Zealand, Bhanu might have become small and huddled; our lives there were always slightly shabby, as if the gray of the skies had settled over our skins, clothes, hopes. In Fiji, she would have been one of the several daughter-in-law, bickering for position in a chaotic and quarrelsome extended family. In India she could have lived a life of middle– or upper-class privilege, with ahousehold of maids to supervise.
In America my mother bloomed like a tropical flower, colourful, with a thick, strong stem, petals as sturdy as bark....
Slowly we became – all four of us – American. For Bhupendra and Bhanu this would become clearer with each visit to India or Fiji. Although they tried to blend in, to do as the locals did, the mask was less and less perfect. The changes were physiological: they oculd not drink the water, had to be careful about what they ate ... The changes were also psychological. They found they simply could not understand why certain things were as they were, how people could stand to live that way.
You don’t need to move to USA to realise that you have changed. Shifting from Patna to Delhi or Mumbai can change you equally. Going to university, living on your own, every change marks your difference. In that sense, you don’t need to be an emigrant to understand what Minal is writing about.

Minal’s own journey as a second generation emigrant growing up in USA, was also interesting since through it I could imagine a dialogue with my son and see his growing up experinece. He himself would never talk of such things with me, and unless he decides to write a book about himself one day, I have no way to enter that world.

Minal’s own journey is much tougher, I think, compared to my son’s journey, since it is linked to her struggle to live her sexuality that doesn’t fit in with the heterosexual “normality” of the traditional family.

As the world globalises, I think that Minal Hazratwala’s book tells a story that is more universal, that can be understood and felt by all those who move away from the places where they grew up, from villages to the cities, from one country to another.

LEAVING INDIA, My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, by Minal Hajratwala, 2008, published by Houghton Mifftin Harcourt company USA e Tranquebar press India.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Indian Dalit & European Roma

In a recent magazine section of The Hindu (22 November 2009), there was an interesting article of Pardeep Attri on sharing of ideas and experiences between Indian dalit activists and European Roma (Gypsies) activists.

Growing up in India, I had seen the impact of caste based discrimination and exploitation. Over the past ten years, I am living in a place in Bologna (Italy) where some Roma families have been settled. So I have also had the opportunity to see how Roma persons are treated there. However, I feel that in emotional terms, I can understand much better the discrimination and exploitation of Dalits in India, while many of the basic issues regarding discrimination of Roma persons still remain a mystery for me.

Attri’s article

In his article Pardeep Attri has written about some Hungarian Roma activists who had read about Dr Ambedkar’s struggle for the rights of Dalits to live with dignity and visited Maharashtra to learn more about it and to create links with them. Later Attri himself visited Hungary to interact with Roma communities there. He has written about his experience of visiting a Roma village in Hungary.

Like Dalits in India, it seems that as a result of this India-Hungarian collaboration, some of the Romas in Hungary have converted to Buddhism:

My experiences with Roma persons

For a long time in Italy, I didn’t have much opportunity to observe persons who are easily identified as Roma. In Italian the political correct term to call them is Rom while most persons use a more derogatory term of “Zingaro” (plural, zingari). I had mostly seen them as beggers outside churches or as persons playing music in the buses or trains to earn money or as persons running the amusement parks that are set up as a visiting fair in the outskirts of the city.

Some of them look very Indian, especially women, who look like Rajasthani women, with a long ghagra like skirt and blouse, often with small babies in their arms and usually surrounded by many children of varying ages. It automatically created a sense of kinship for me.

There are two issues in terms of my personal experiences related to Roma persons. First is that these experiences probably relate to a certain group of Roma persons, who are not integrated in the communities where they live, and who are considered as representatives of all Roma persons.

The second issue is that inspite of feelings of emotional kinship and beliefs in inherent dignity and equality of all persons, I find it very difficult to relate to them.

This difficulty of relationship arises because they seem to be refusing many of the social conventions of living together. For example, it seems that they have not taken bath or washed clothes, they wear tattered clothes. Some times shoeless children can be seen in minus zero temperatures of Bologna winter in small sweaters, shivering in the tremendous cold. They often speak loudly and use offensive language. Some of them smell of alcohol even in the morning so that when they enter the bus, most persons refuse to sit next to them. Some of them, don’t throw the garbage in the boxes but leave it on the road. Sometimes, you can see them taking out garbage bags from the big garbage collection boxes, searching for things that can be sold or recycled, and at the end they walk away leaving all the garbage scattered around on the road.

Some of these things are more about poverty and lack of education, a result of the exclusion, and thus part of a vicious cycle, where exclusion and poverty reinforce more exclusion and poverty.

One of my friend’s wife works with Roma children and according to her the situation of Roma persons in Italy is as bad as Attri describes in his article. They are poor, most of them live in open areas where there is no tap water, no electricity, no sewage disposal. Most of their children, do not go to school or complete it, even if Italy has almost hundred percentage coverage of free universal education.

The unanswered questions

The situation of Roma persons raises so many questions in my mind that I can’t answer and for which, I don’t have any clear understanding. In India, the oppression of Dalits has millenniums-long social tradition, but in Europe, the different socially oppressed groups such as rural poor, were able to throw away the yoke of fiefdoms over the past three hundred years, to create more egalitarian societies, why were Roma persons excluded from this?

Emigrants who don’t share religion, who have different cultures and customs, all have to negotiate how to live with the society that they have chosen to live in. It is not always smooth and there are episodes of racism and discrimination against them. Yet, in a bus, most persons do not move away from an Arab Muslim women whose face is covered with hijab or the African in his long kaftan. Most immigrant children do go to school and are usually the first ones to build bridges with the majority community. The second generations of emigrants do seem to find work and integrate much better.

Jews and Valdes Christians are two of the important minorities in Italy. I am sure that they also experience certain discrimination in at least in some occasions. Yet none of them seems to face the problems that Roma persons do, who have also been in Italy for long time.

I can’t understand the reasons behind this. It seems that by being dirty or being socially disruptive, some Roma persons are saying that they do not want integration and they would like to live as they have always lived, according to their own rules. It is their protest. At the same time, people feel that all Roma persons are like that. They help in perpetuating their own stereotypes?

Is it just poverty that does it? May be it is other cultural issues? May be strong patriarchy that decides who can do what? Perhaps this is only a minority of Roma persons, and there are many more, who have “integrated” and look like other Italians or other emigrants?

May be the roots of nomadism are very strong and integration in the society is an unacceptable goal for some of them?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Teaching and learning Bharatnatyam: Praveen Kumar

It was just by chance that I came to know Praveen Kumar, the Bharatnatyam maestro from Bangalore. I was in Delhi for holidays and on the last day of my holiday, on an impulse I decided to go and watch his dance performance at India Habitat centre. I had never seen a male Bharatnatyam dance and it was probably that curiosity that drove me to his performance.

It was wonderful to watch him dance and I clicked lot of his pictures during the dance.

After my return to Italy, I added some of his pictures to Kalpana.it and wrote to him, asking him to look at those pictures and that if wanted I would be happy to send him some pictures in higher resolution. He wrote back to me to thank me, and thus we started to correspond.

In November, when I had an opportunity to come to Bangalore for work, I wrote to him, saying that I would like to see him perform and perhaps also while he taught his students. He had just come back home after a dance tour in UK, and he immediately agreed to meet me in Bangalore.

It was not possible to watch him perform nor to see him teach his students because of my busy work schedule. But one afternoon I visited his home and ate wonderful food cooked by his mother. There was besibhele bhat (rice cooked with vegetables, and spices) sandige (balls of puffed rice mixed with gentle spices) and curd rice, followed by rasgullas.

His dance school Chithkala is part of his house and his home, spartan, simple and full of empty spaces, is very tastefully done, reflects his personality with lot of Ganesh statues. His dance school is one big room in minimalist style with a dancing Natraj on one wall, a Ganesh picture in an angle, and a wall covered with mirrors.

After we ate, I asked him if he would give a small performance for me. You are not suppose to dance with a full stomach, but he agreed to give a small performance. It was very thrilling to know that he was dancing just for me, and it was the most wonderful gift that he could have given me.

All through the lunch and then his dance, we talked about his dancing and his life. Here are some excerpts from this informal talk:

Sunil: It is not common to find male Bharatnatyam dancers. How did you decide to become a dancer?

Praveen: I was always dancing. Then my father said, if you are you interested in dance, learn it properly. I was fifteen at that time, I was in high school, that I started to learn dancing. I continued my studies at the same time and became a graphic designer. For one year, I also had a job as a graphic designer. Then I said that my real passion is dance, and I want to take it up properly. So I gave up my job and took to dancing full time and opened my dance school.

Sunil: And your parents, were they happy with this choice? Normally society does not seem to accept male classical dancers.

Praveen: No actually, my parents supported me.

Sunil: Tell me about your Guru, who taught you dancing?

Praveen: My first Guru is now no more. Now I am a disciple of C.V.Chandrasekhar. He is in Chennai. He is 75 years old and still dances. Perhaps you remember him, he was with me during my performance in Delhi.

Sunil: In Chennai? How does that work? And why did you decide to have him as your guru?

Praveen: It was just like that, by chance. I go to Chennai occasionally to be with him. But now looking back, I am very happy that he accepted me as his disciple. It is not easy to find Gurus like him. Many persons can teach Bharatnatyam. They can teach you specific dances on some songs. But they can’t explain the whole thought process that goes behind composing a dance. My Guru is very good because he does not just teach me specific dance steps, but I can learn about the thought process that goes behind making a specific dance.

Sunil: Do you mean a particular school of dance? He can explain the meanings of gestures and their significance?

Praveen: It is more of a particular style of dancing. Each teacher has his or her own style of dancing, so a Guru teaches you that style.

Sunil: But isn’t classical dance mean that you have rules about specific movements and you have to respect them?

Praveen: Yes, there are specific rules of dancing but it is more than that. You can observe life around you and adapt those in your dancing. You look at organisation of a piece, administration of a performance. Not all Gurus think about those. For example, in salsa you start with your hands in this position (makes a gesture with one hand raised up, palms turned downwards), while in Bharatnatyam you start like this (makes another gesture with one arm lifted and palms held upwards), so you can learn from others and then adapt it and incorporte it in your dance.

Sunil: So your Guru doesn’t only teach you specific steps but he can teach you how a dance performance is created?

Praveen: Yes. For example, you may remember one dance from my performance in Delhi. It is usually not done by male dancers. He proposed that I adapt it for my dance. He wrote the lyrics in front of me. And then it’s music was set up. Perhaps it was the first time that a male dancer was doing that dance. Thus, it is not just about learning steps, but I could see and understand the whole creative process in making in that piece of dance.

Sunil: It must be very fulfilling to have students with whom you can share such knowledge and not limit yourself to teaching some dance steps?

Praveen: Yes, it is very fulfilling. Very few students can appreciate that. Among my thirty students, perhaps one or two can have that kind of commitment.

Sunil: You were talking about salsa. Have you ever been to a discotheque?

Praveen (smiling): Not in India. But I have been to discotheques a few times outside India. A few times, when I was in USA and then also in UK. People think that if someone is a classical dancer, he can’t do the discotheque kind of dance, but it was fun and some persons were very surprised that I was dancing like that.

Sunil: Have you ever been to a modern dance workshop like the Jazz dance?

Praveen: Workshops like that abroad are too costly for me and we don’t have many such opportunities here.

Sunil: Attitudes towards males dancing have changed now? Among your students do you have only female students or also some men?

Praveen: Yes, the attitudes have changed. Now we have more men dancing. Among my students I also have a university assistant professor, who is a man.

Sunil: And do you also get students from outside India?

Praveen: Yes, I have had some students who come from other countries to learn dance.

Conclusions: I think that it is a privilege to be able to look behind the public faces of performers and artists and have a glimpse of their lives and their creative processes. I found this particular conversation important for understanding some facets of the teacher-student relationship in learning Bharatnatyam.

Praveen is a gentle person and I am glad that he opened up so easily to share his thoughts. The memory of him dancing just for me in his dancing room will always remain with me. Thank you Praveen.

You can also check the pictures from Praveen's dance performance in Delhi at Kalpana.it.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Kurbaan and the Muslim Reality

I was determined to see at least one Hindi film in a proper cinema hall. The last film I had seen at a cinema hall was Jodha Akbar. In Italy, where I live, Bollywood films are not released and I have to wait to come to India to see them in a cinema hall. Last week I was in Bangalore for work and one evening, after the work finished, I walked into the theater and I saw Kurbaan.

Even though I had read in some newspaper that this film has flopped, at least that particular day when I went to see it, the hall in Forum mall of Bangalore, was quite full. Perhaps it was a hit in Bangalore?

Film: Given a chance, I wouldn’t like to see Kurbaan again, even though it did have lot of plus points, especially in terms of acting from the main actors. I liked all of them, especially Kareena Kapoor. She looks good and is great overall, even more in the emotional scenes. Saif, Vivek and veterans like Om Puri and Kirron Kher, all give credible performances.

The plot of the film is tight, it is fast-paced, so the time does run very quickly. The music and the background score are lovely. "Shukran allah" song is my faviourite. Cinematography is wonderful and shots of the explosions and shootings are done like in Hollywood films.

I had read about some debate about the explicit sexual scenes between Saif and Kareena, and indeed there is one such sequence. I think that it is great that Kareena had the strength to do this scene, since in India, all things related to sexuality are usually shrouded in hypocracy. With a clever use of “Rasiya” song in the background, the scene communicates an underlying sense of danger and pathos, even while stretching the limits of sexual moments shown in Indian films.

At the end of the film, from so many scenes, the images of Kareena remain with me. Like the closing image of the film with the unshed tears in her eyes!

Loops in screenplay: Yet there were times, that I felt like laughing in the film, because of its screenplay - it was all a bit childish and unbelievable. Like the reporter deciding to become a part of the terrorist group or the way American policemen were so easily outsmarted by a lone terrorist or the way FBI is shown  as clueless, running in circles.

After watching scores of Hollywood dramas about the global reach of American secret services, it does seem different to see them as bumbling idiots. The terrorist can run away from scenes of shootings, even with a bullet in his chest, without the police being able to do anything. May be, as a sign of Indo-American friendship, we can send some sniffer dogs from India to the New York Police department.

Avantika (Kareen Kapoor), the Hindu ladylove of the terrorist, wakes up night to call the reporter, but when she goes to a supermarket with her Appa, why she can’t stop a policeman or a security service person to say that the lady accompanying her is her jailor? And when the old lady is whisked away, she can run to the reporter to cry and plead to him for saving her, but can’t just walk away? Or, even when she knows that men are carrying bombs (while she is unaware that her own bag has one bomb), why can’t she talk to persons in the train or security at train station? If at least they had shown that Appa was carrying a gun and had threatened to kill her, her silence could have looked more believable (Appa does carry a gun but Avantika does not know about it).

So while the film looks and sounds good, if you think about the story, it does seem full of loopholes and not very credible.

Film’s message about Muslims: I had read in some reviews that the film tries to be neutral and explain both the sides, and the reasons of anger among Muslims. However, I found the film’s depiction of Muslims a bit problematic. I felt that the film explains the apparent reasons given by fundamentalists to justify themselves, but it ignores the point of view of the silent majority of Muslims.

Almost all Muslims in the film are shown to be sympathatic towards terrorism and justify it by the American and European greed and barbarism. The only “good” Muslim in the film is the reporter Riyaaz Masud (Vivek Oberoi) along with his girl friend, but even he can’t articulate himself when his father talks about the superiority of religion. His fight seems more motivated by feelings of personal revenge because of death of his lady love in a bomb explosion, rather than from his beliefs.

Reporter’s father (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) clarifies that “for Muslims religion comes first” and the terrorist mastermind (Om Puri) says, “No American is ready to sacrifice himself for his God, as Muslims can do”.

It is true that the Muslim characters shown in the film are limited and the film does not really show the views of other Muslims, who do not believe in terrorism. But, in my opinion, it would have helped to show some Muslims who could articulate that religion is not more important than their country and that no matter what, killing innocents can’t be ever justifed.

Thus the film is a story of a few persons, and can’t be generalised to all Muslims. But at the same time, the film’s take-home message seems to be: you can’t really rely on Muslims. Here some examples of how this message is given in the film:

One of the women in the house is murdered at home and her body is still lying in the basement. Her husband complains about the bad smell, but other ladies in the house can’t smell it and go on with their daily khanas and teas. The message is that Muslim women are all afraid and submissive or die-hard fanatics themselves.

There is a university professor, who helps to get a job as a university professor to a Pakistani terrorist in St. Stephen’s college in Delhi. This same kindly looking professor, who likes to spend hours playing chess in the teachers’ room in the college, happily goes to guard an old man in his house to help the terrorists and smiling threatens to “take care of him”. The message is that even cultured and peaceful persons, are in reality hidden terrorists.

And the Pakistani terrorist, is himself talking about the peace messages in holy Kuraan and about promoting a dialogue among university students about Islam. At the same time, he happily shoots American Policemen and unarmed civilians in his free time. He doesn’t feel pain and can stitch the wound on his chest without fainting. But The brutal assassin has a saving grace, in spite of himself, he is in love with his Hindu wife and in the end, he forgets his bombing mission and kurbaans (sacrifices) himself for his love.

There is the elderly woman (Kiran Kher), wife of the terrorist mastermind. She does not have any qualms in putting a gun on the head of pregnant woman who calls her Appa (elder sister) and who has been living in her care for some days, because “no one is really innocent” and “it is all justified by the American bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq”. Why couldn’t she carry the purse with the bomb herself, you may ask, it would have achieved the same end, without risking to have it on a person who is likely to run if she gets a chance?

When the film finished, I felt that its over-riding message was that no Muslim can be really against terrorism, that you can’t even believe those Muslims who talk about peace and against terrorism. It is great pity that the film gives such a message.

The unrepresented Muslim: On yesterday’s International Herald Tribune, there was an article of Tariq Ahmed, a doctor of Pakistani origin, working in Brigham (USA) titled “The price of being born a Muslim”, where he has written:

The reality is that the vast majority of Muslims are secular. We do not pray five times a day, do not read Koran and have not spent much time inside a mosque. We only turn to Islam when a child is born, someone gets married or someone dies. ... We certainly have no interest in participating in civilizational battles. We are in fact loathed by religious minority. And yet we have no clear voice, no representation and no one in the Western world appears to be aware of our existence. Every time a terrorist attack occurs, we suffer the most.
I feel that there is need to represent these persons in film and to help express their point of view.

For majority of people in the world, it does not matter if they are Hindus, Christians, Jews or Muslims, religions and religious books are important in certain moments of their lives, but their lives are not limited by what these books say or do not say. They do not follow everything said by those who claim to be their religious leaders. Kurbaan does not say much on behalf of these persons.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Writing in the time of conflict

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to three writers talk about the conflicts in their countries and how it affects and influences their writing. This seminar was part of a wider event organised by Italian weekly Internazionale. The three writers were Suad Amiry from Palestine, Romesh Gunesekera from Sri Lanka and Abdourahman Waberi from Djibuti and talking to them was Italian journalist Maria Nadotti.

It was a fascinating discussion and for a long time I kept on thinking about it. Here are a few excerpts from this seminar.

Maria: Suad Amiry’s family was originally from Palestine, but they had to leave their countries before her birth and she was born in Damascus. However, she went back to live in Ramallah in Gaza some years ago. Palestine is composed of Gaza and Cis-Jordan, not connected to each other.

Gaza is a narrow strip of land along the coast, 6-14 km wide and about 40 km long. In this area live 1.537.000 persons, that means 472 persons per square km.

Cis Jordan is about 6000 square km area, its borders are not defined exactly, with a population of about 2.5 million Palestinians and about half a million Isrealis.

Suad: Talking about Palestine, it is a country that is shrinking all the time. At the beginning of century (Note: I think that she means the beginning of previous century - nineteen hundred), Palestine was four times as it is today.

In Palestine, space and time do not have significance. What I mean by that is that if I go out of the house to go to Jerusalem, which is only 15 km away from Ramallah. In a place like Ferrara, you can say “15 km means 15 minutes”. But in Palestine, those 15 km between Ramallah and Jersualem can take you 15 minutes, can take you 2 hours, could take you a whole day, may be you never reach Jerusalem, may be you never come back.

Thus the notion of the state of Palestine, in a situation of occupation, is different. Palestine is more or less the size of the island of Alba in Italy, but it has 500 check-points. These check points don’t separate Palestine from Isreal, they really separate Palestine from Palestine.

So if you talk of geography and if you look at the map of Palestine, it looks like a swiss cheese. Maria has asked me to talk about geography of Palestine so you see, it is an Arab country and has Arab culture, but we can never get to any Arab country because of the occupation.

The world media is only interested in bombardments and the suicide bombings, Abu Mazen and Yassef Arafat. No one really cares about three and half million persons under occupation. For me occupation means that space around me keeps on changing. I am an architect and I see that change. I became a writer purely by accident. Because of building of settlements, because of occupation, because of building of wall, we live in a changijng place all the time.

May be you have seen “Cinema Paradiso”, where the whole village goes into estrangement because one cinema, one building is gone. In Palestine, we live thousands of “Cinema Paradiso” because when I go out I am not sure what I am going to find.

Maria: Here we are talking of small countries, that are becoming even smaller. For political erosion, as in Palestine. For geographical erosion and migrations as in Sri Lanka and Djibuti.

My question is that migrations make a country smaller and at the same time, in another way, enlarge it. They multiply it. What would I know about those other countries without the voices of the emigrants? Writing about your countries from outside or from inside? What happens when you write about your countries from far away? Not just far away physically but also far away in memories? What do we know about our countries after thirty years of not living there? How does that differ from writing about it, living there in the middle of daily routines?

Suad who lives there, writes her daily happenings, an on going dialogue. While Romesh and Waberi write much more through evocation.

Romesh: This is complicated. People feel that you have to write about what you know or where you come from. There is a kind of pressure on you to write about certain things. Like some American writers feel that they can write only about the good things in America and not about the trash, even if trash is from where great literature comes.

There is an assumption that where you come from, that might affect your writing. One of my Indian writer friends, when he saw my first book, a very slim book, he said that it is because I come from a small island. He doesn’t write very big books but he believes that being from a large country, he has so much to cover and his canvas is going to be very large. May be there is an element of truth here.

How you write about a country when you are far away from it, is not an issue, because I am a writer of fiction. Unlike the writers of happenings, when you write fiction, in your imagination you are actually there. I am interested in the connection between the real world and the fictional world, but anyone who reads fiction and is excited by it, knows that there is an area of frisson between the real and the imaginary world. You are writing about a place and about people, which is true and also not true. That is why people love to go to the places where fiction is placed. Like, if you like James Joyce, people go to Dublin and they walk on the street where Leopold Bloom walked, they stop where he stopped and they know that he never existed and he never walked on that street. It is all in imagination. I think that connection is what is interesting.

Suad: As Maria said, I became a writer thanks to Sharon and my mother in law. I lived my life as an architect and being an architect is a state of mind. As writers also we are in a state of mind. “Murad Murad” is my fourth book, but I really can’t say that I am a writer. I can tell you what I do, how I live in my writing.

My first book “Sharon and my mother in law” came as a result of curfew for 42 days. My mother in law was ninety one year old and she came to live with me during those days. I tell Isrealis that one day I may forgive you for putting us under a curfew for 42 days but I will not forgive you for making my mother in law live with me. With her, those 42 days seemed like 42 years.

There were Isreali soldiers outside our house and I had my mother in law inside the house. So I had double occupation. Those of you who follow the news, you know that Isreali occupation is enough to drive you crazy but having my mother in law made me a writer. So what happened was that every day I would sit at home and write what ever was happening in our home, between my mother in law and I.

I wrote about going shopping when they lift the curfew for two hours and you can go out and buy everything you need, imagine eighty thousand people trying to shop all together. It was a mad house. I wasn’t thinking of writing. I was writing emails to friends, telling them that please do not share these with anybody, because they were so nasty about my mother in law. Little did I realize that people like nastiness, they liked them because of their frankness. It was reporting that was not intended to become a book.

Actually it could be fictional because living in Palestine is so unreal. Sometimes, I ask when is reality? I don’t say what is reality, I say, when is reality? It is true that I am reporitng from everyday experience. People keep on asking me, is that real, is that true? I write for real, what people think may be fiction.

My second book, “No sex in the city” (Note: I am just translating from the Italian title that she quoted, actual original title may be different) was about Ramallah. That book was instigated and triggered by Hamas winning the elction in Palestine. That was so drammatic in my life, being a woman who was active, like I was active in PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation). I have been involved in it all my life, it is a secular movement. We always felt that we worked for women’s issues and secularism. To be one of the first countries of the world that would elect a religious party was drammatic, it made me loose reality. It made me think about who am I, what country am I living in, what future do I have? I felt that I have spent so many years of life to convey to the world that Palestinians are normal human beings, and then with election of Hamas!

I wanted to say that Palestinians are normal human beings, that Moslems are normal persons and those elections pushed me to write about the life of my women friends. I wanted to call that book “Palestinian Menopause” but the editor was afraid of the “menopause” in the title, and then the title was “No sex in the city” and that was fine because no one is afraid of the word “sex” in Italy.

It is about the life of women friends and about very real stories about how people became Palestinian. It is not about Palestinians. Only when I wrote that book, I realized that my women friends, the menopausal group with whom we go out every day, one is Egyptian, one is Moroccan, one is Armenian, one is American, hardly there is a Palestinian except for me, and I am half Palestinian and half Syrian. What brought us together was because of Palestine, as a cause rather than as a geography.

My last book is again from a harsh reality. The reality of building that wall, that is a concrete wall. But for me that wall is not a physical thing. It is a monster. If you ask Palestinians to tell about three events that marked the history of Palestine, they will say 1948 when 800,000 people were thrown out of historical Palestine that became Isreal and my family happened to be one of them from Jaffa; then they would say the setting up of those 500 check-points inside a small area, that prevents us from moving; and the third would be the wall.

Let me explain how this book “Murad Murad” came about. The wall is such a reality that I always ask – what would have happened if we Palestinians or Arabs around all the Jewish state of Isreal, how would the world treat us? It is beyond me, I don’t know whether it is a reality or fiction, that Isrealis, who everyday talk about need for peace, want to be part of the middle east, built that wall that separates them from their future neighbours.

Murad was like my mother in law in my other book, “Sharon and my mother in law”. My mother in law, who was ninety one year old, for me was a symbol of resistance. For her the curfew didn’t matter, she wanted her milk in the morning at seven o’clock. No matter what happened, she wanted to have lunch at one o’clock. So to me she was a symbol of resitence, of wanting to live a normal life in spite of the curfew imposed by Isrealis. Murad was symbolised same resistance to me.

I contemplated, how would I write about the wall? Then I thought that I want to write about the wall from an animal’s point of view. We human beings are so egocentric. The first things that hurt me about the wall was the one million five hundred thousand olive trees that were uprooted for this wall to be constructed. I was thinking what would a deer or a hare would think of this wall. Then Murad appeared one day in my life. He is a twenty one year old boy, who has been working in Isreal for the last seven years of his life. He woke up one day like the other 200,000 Palestinian workers, who had spent all their lives there and were told by Sharon that “No more illegal Palestinian workers coming to work in Isreal.”

We are all aware of issues of migrations and workers, but it is very difficult for me to think of Palestinian workers being illegal in their homes.

Abdourahman: Coming to the question of reality and fiction, it is very complicated. I often have this discussion with my students and ask them what is reality? If you go to the Piazza Trento and you shoot a video there near a lively place outside a café and then you go ten minutes later and the place is empty, so what is reality? I think that reality is something untrackable, something fluid.

Having written eight-nine books on my small country, I realize that I am not writing just from reality’s point of view or from geopolitical point of view, but I am also writing about something that is depper than reality, something that is country of my imagination that is mixed and overlapping with the country of reality. You have history, geography, mythology, etc. so this geological overlapping is something that you try to pierce or break into pieces by the use of the language or the use of imagination.

My writing has to do with both, with reality and also with mythology and history. That is why I use fables like in this book “In the United States of Africa”. That “In” in the title signals that everything has happened, and the purpose of the book is to say that United States of Africa is a reality. It has been created by imagination. I start by taking it forward from there, that so what would happen? From this point of view, you can create distance and you can also produce criticism, what I call social criticism. You start with imagination and from that imagination, you can create a political action.

You can write like that about Palestine, how it was in 1844 and how it could be in 1984 and thus it can exist in the heads of the readers without polemics or whatever. Why I wrote this book, because I was an African in Europe or an European African, I have been for so long in France that I have been Francised, so what I am asking is who am I and who are we in this world?

I am asking if all Europe wants to emigrate to Africa, what would happen? Then you would see the issue of emigration and work, one of the key issues of today, from a different point of view. That is what I have tried.

Actually I am ready with a new book that is called “Passage of tears” that is looking at Djibuti in recent times. That is looking at two important areas – the Islamic discourse in the public and social space that is often linked to Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, and a new interpretation of Islam for a new political agenda. The country is changing also because of interest of the Persian gulf in Africa. Djibuti had strong exclusive links with France, but it is no longer the case. In Djibuti you have French, because France is an important partner within the global agenda, but you also have the US because it has the biggest military base in Africa in Djibuti. Then you have influence from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and all those places. And in the book it is framing the situation from social and economic point of view. Having said that I am also trying to build some kind of historical connection between Djibuti of today and the France of the fascist Arab days, that situation of nineteen thirties and fourties in France, at that time Djibuti was a colony. This is a way of making the landscape and making new perspectives. It has to do with geropolitical situation and with history.

Romesh: I can add to that because it struck me that even with fiction, the reader is getting news from some where. It tell you about real things even if it is not reality. My last book, The Match, part of it is set in the Philippines in the nineteen seventies when I grew up there. I was a little worried when I did that, wondering if I new enough about it or if I could do it well. When the book was published, I was very interested in reactions from the people in Philippines.

Philippines is a country of young people and so most people and most people who read the book were not there in the nineteen seventies, so it is a new country in a sense. To read about that for them was to read about a different place. The other feed back that I got was that newspapers etc. you don’t have to be Philippino to understand the country, you just have to be there or you just have to imagine it to redefine the way you think about the place.

That made me think of something that Russian writer Nobokov said about fiction, when you read something and you sense the excitement or a sense of fear of the character, what you sense is actually quite often the real sense of writer behind that who has a sense of excitement or fear about the sentences that he or she is dealing it, it comes out of the words themselves.

Comment: It was a fascinating morning listening to the three writers. I felt the three of them also symblised three different ways of bring a writer. For me Abdourahman's way of talking about his work seemed more intellectual, Romesh's way of articulating seemed more emotional, while Suad seemed more rooted in irony.

I liked all three of them, and I also liked the way Maria probed them, but I was struck very much by Suad's way of narrating her daily dilemmas. There is so much rhetoric all around about human rights, democracy and other such ideals and yet listening to her and what happens in Palestine is a cruel reminder of the distance between reality and rhetoric.

After the meeting I talked some more with Romesh. I asked him if the main protagonist in his new book "The Match" is more autobiographical in the sense that it is about a person who has forgotten his roots and then in the middle age, rediscovers them, and that emigrant writers often touch on this theme of rediscovering their roots, sooner or later in their writings. Romesh said that almost all important writers are emigrants, from Shakespear to Dante, which I found very intriguing.

Reclaiming my faith

It was January and sister Leela, an old friend and a nun from India, was with us that evening. Marco and Atam, my son and daughter in law, had come for dinner. Leela recited her prayers asking God to bless all the persons sitting around that table and made a sign of cross. All others murmured "Amen" and made signs of cross, including my Sikh daughter in law. I didn't.

A few days later, we were having dinner in the evening, when I told my wife what was troubling me. I had grown up in India, where I had learned that we respect all religions. As a child and a growing up man, in India, if I visited a Gurudwara of Sikhs, I would cover my head and kneel before Guru Granth Saheb, if I visited a church, I made a sign of cross, if I visited a temple I would fold my hands and accept the vermillion mark on my forehead.

We were not a religious family. Rather, I would say that I heard much more criticisms about Hinduism. My mother often complained about "hypocrisy in the temples and wasting precious milk and ghee on stupid rituals that can feed so many poor". My paternal grandmother, wrote "Ram, Ram" countless times on sheets of paper to espiate her sin of being a widow and read religious books. We would go to all Ramleelas and Durga Pujas with very non religious excitement of "having a good time" and hoping to get some tasty prasad to eat.

In Rajendra Nagar, where we lived, on one side we had Sajid bhai and his wife Ireen with their two children, and above them the very religious Sharma family. There were many Sikh families in our street. But my closest friend was Sam, who had come from Hyderabad to stay with his aunt, Mrs. Rock. With him, I had gone to a few mid-night Christmas masses.

Yet, religions of the persons were not something so clear in my mind. Like Akhtar bhai, who must have been just 5-6 years older to me and who used to come to our home to meet my father, I had never thought of him as "Muslim". When I had to go to Udaipur for an interview, I stayed with Haseena ji's family, a friend of my father, without really thinking that I was going to a "Muslim" house.

Perhaps those times were different and today religious identities and differences have become much more marked, but I often find myself thinking of the past and classifying persons by their religions, like I did above for Sajid bhai, Akhtar bhai and Sam. It feels wrong to me yet I can't stop myself from doing it. And it all started about two decades ago, when I decided that I will not make the sign of a cross.

Coming to Italy was what started this change. People here are more used to sharp religious boundaries and perhaps most of them expect persons to follow those boundaries clearly. "If you are not Catholic and you are not even a Christian, why do you make the sign of cross?" an Italian priest once asked me. I tried to explain that it was normal in India, that going to a church or making the sign of cross did not make me less Hindu, but it showed that I respected the others, but he was clearly not convinced.

That priest was not the only one. It happened a few more times. They said that it was "hypocrisy" or "ambiguous" or "dishonest" or "an attempt to conform and to ingratiate". I was angry and hurt and I stopped making the sign of cross in a church. Thus, whenever I accompanied my wife to a mass, I would stand stiffly, showing clearly that I was not Catholic.

It hurt me inside and every time I entered a church as a tourist, I felt that I was disrespecting God by not stopping to pray for a few moments. I knew that it was not rational. How does it matter to God if I pray inside me or I show it with folded hands or with a sign of cross? A temple or a mosque or a church is just a building and God is no more or no less there than in any other building? I tried to explain it to myself, to justify it, but I felt as I had violated something at deeper level inside me.

It was the first time, I was actually talking about it. I told my wife all this. She felt that I should not let myself be influenced by what others say or think about my religious ideas, but I should behave in the way I wish.

In April, when I visited India, I talked about it with Daisy and like my wife, she had the same advice for me, to behave in the way I felt inside me and not let myself be influenced by others.

Understanding something rationally is perhaps different from the emotional understanding, when something comes from deep inside you? I had the rational understanding but I was waiting for my inner self to understand it.

Finally it came on last Sunday. I was in Rome, visiting an old church. There was just an old woman sitting and praying. I made my peace with myself as my hands made the gesture of cross.

Actually I have not changed my way of thinking. The statues or the temple or the church or the mosque, do not make any difference to me, since I feel God is there in everything, in all beings live or inanimate. But I feel happier, I have reclaimed my right to respect the religions in way I feel right. If others feel that I am being a hypocrite or ambiguous, they are welcome to think what ever they wish.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Bollywood has arrived in Italy

These days there is a Bollywood wave in Italy after a series of Hindi films were shown on Italian national TV channel on prime time.

Compared to some of other western European countries like UK, France, Germany or Netherlands, Italy has a limited population of Indians and perhaps for this reason, Bollywood films were almost unknown in Italy till recently. There were persons who liked Bollywood and who watched Hindi films with English sub-titles but their numbers were extremely limited. On the other hand, there have always been some persons interested in world cinema, the kind of persons who go to film festivals and many of these persons were aware of the realistic films that usually make it to film festivals but they were not into the usual masala films of Bollywood.

During the past twenty years, I am only aware of two occasions when Indian films made it to the Italian TV and in both instances these films were broadcasted late in the night – one was Kagaaz ke phool by Gurudutt and the second was Lagaan by Ashutosh Gowarikar.

Italy doesn’t have a culture of subtitled films and all films must be dubbed into Italian. Many years ago a dubbed version of Deewar was released in Italy but it didn’t find any audience. More recently Lagaan, Mission Kashmir and Sawaariya were released in dubbed versions but none of them made it to any cinema halls and were only released on DVDs.

Perhaps the change came with the films made by expatriate Indian film directors like Mira Nayar, Deepa Mehta and Gurvinder Chadha. Mira nayar’s Salaam Bombay and more recently, Monsoon Wedding & The Namesake, Deepa Mehta’s Water and Gurvinder Chadha’s East is East and Bend it like Backham, all had theater releases, DVDs and TV broadcasts.

Then in the TV “dead-season” in summer 2008 the national channel RAI had shown 3 Hindi films (“Cheeni Kum”, “Hum Tum” and “Aur ho gaya na”). In summer, Italians go on holidays and TV viewership goes down and that is the time when usually old reruns of TV serials and films are shown. In 2008, there was some awareness of Bollywood first created. Then in 2009, this experiment was repeated and it started in July with “Namastey London”. The waves this year have been much bigger since the film topped the viewership ratings of the Saturday primetime.

Since then, on successive Saturdays, it has been Bollywood time on RAI and each time it tops the viewership ratings. Thus the series that was supposed to stop at end of July was extended to mid-August and now it seems it will go on till end of August. The other films shown so far in this season include – Fanaa, Salaam Namastey, Jab We Met, Laaga Chunri Mein Daag and Mujhse Dosti Karoge. Next saturday will be the turn of Dil Ka Rishta.

Suddenly people want to know about Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta and Kajol. My Italian blog Awaragi, where occasionally I wrote about Bollywood films, used to get about 10-15 hits a day and now on Sundays after the the Bollywood nights, the number of hits reach upto 700-800. Suddenly as an "expert" on Bollywood I am in demand with people writing in to ask about meanings of the words of the songs or other things related to Bollywood.

The Hindi films shown on RAI are reduced versions from which most of the songs and some scenes are removed. They last around 1 hour and 40 minutes so that with the ad-breaks they finish in 2 hours. For example in Salaam Namastey, the whole Javed Jaffery track and parts of the final hospital scene were removed, along with the songs. Unfortunately, even those background songs that are left in the film, are without subtitles so people write to ask for meanings. Initially, especially in 2008, the dubbing was strange with persons using sing-song voices, sounding caricatures of Indians like Peter Sellers in The Party, but that has improved considerably. All these films are mainly romantic films and perhaps for that reason, majority of feedback I have received is from women.

I think that this opens up a new market for Hindi films in Italy, especially in terms of DVDs. Right now, no Hindi film has proper Italian subtitles – most Italian subtitles in Hindi DVDs seem to be done with automatic translation software that often butchers the meanings. Italy is flooded with low quality pirated Hindi DVDs aimed at Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani emigrants. People write to me asking for Bollywood films dubbed into Italian or with proper Italian subtitles, but I don’t have any clue about what to advice to give to them.

I hope that Indian film-makers and international distributors can read it and take necessary steps to safeguard the interests of the Indian film industry.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Delhi's Coming Out

I had heard about the Delhi Queer Pride parade, planned on 28 June 2009. But it was going to be in Connaught Place and it was supposed to start at around 5.30 PM, which probably meant that it wouldn’t start moving at least till 6 PM. So I was sure that I could not participate in it. I was in Delhi to look after my mother, who can’t be left alone. After preparing the dinner, the maid usually leaves around 7 PM and there was no way to go to the parade and then be back in home by 7 PM.

That whole week had been terribly hot, just putting the head out of the door felt like being a cake getting cooked inside an oven. And I was sweating so much! 5 minutes after coming out of the house, I was already looking like Shiv ji who has just received river Ganga on his head, streams of sweat running all around me. Probably in all these years of being away from India, my body mechanisms have forgotten how to deal with the Delhi summer, since I couldn’t see anyone else around me sweating so much.

Thus the heat was another reason, I felt that I couldn’t go the Delhi Queer Pride.

I wanted to. I had not been in Delhi in June for the past 25 years and I am not likely to come back here again in June (if I can help it)! So this was my only chance to see it. I had been to the Queer Pride parades in Italy and I had loved it with their wonderful music and colourful floats.

And then on Sunday 28, we woke up to a cloudy sky. During the night, the breeze coming in from the window had turned very pleasant. It was still a little hot and humid, yet the clouds were a sign of hope. The morning newspapers had talked about the Pride but didn’t give any practical information about it. However a search on internet took me to the Delhi Queer Pride website, that had all the practical information. People were supposed to collect at the Tolstoy Marg-Barakhamba road crossing at 5 PM.

What if I leave home around 4 PM, reach Tolstoy Marg-Barahkhamba road crossing by 5 PM, stay there for about 30 minutes and then, come back home, aiming to reach home by 6.30 PM, I thought. OK, I will take the decision in early afternoon, finally I decided. If the clouds stayed, it was a sign from the heavens that I should go, I told myself.

The heavens were definitely in favour of my going, and they showed it by a small shower in the afternoon, and I was there at the starting venue just before 5 PM. There were no floats, and compared to the Pride Parade in Bologna, which is a city of half of million persons, the group gathered there was really tiny. but persons were in high spirits and it was colourful with masks and all kinds of shining-feathery dresses. It was still very hot and some of the heavily made-up drag queens were literally melting down, but still they were busy laughing and preening themselves, like peacocks forced to hide in the darkness of caves, suddenly out in the daylight and enjoying this day of freedom.

There were a lot of policemen all around, but they were relaxed. There were even more journalists, TV reporters, video-cameras and photographers, who were busy looking for persons willing to talk in front of the cameras.

The Pride manifesto explains the basic issues facing the sexual minorities in India:

“400 years ago, the word “queer” meant odd or unusual. 100 years ago, the word was used as an insult for anyone who was different from the society’s norm of gender and sexually “correct” behaviour. It was used to demean and marginalise people. Today, people across the world have reclaimed that word to empower, celebrate and unite people of diverse genders and sexualities. With the rainbow as our symbol of beauty in diversity, we celebrate Queer Pride in solidarity with queer people across the world.

Queer Pride is about celebrating who we are, whether gay, kothi, lesbian, queen, dyke, transgender, bisexual, hijra, butch, paanthi … whether manly looking women or men who sleep with men, whether sex worker or sex changer, Queer Pride affirms our diverse expressions and our everyday struggle for respect and dignity.

Today in India, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people face violence and discrimination from different quarters. Here are some examples of our daily oppression:
  • Lesbians are subject to violence, forced into marriage and even driven to commit suicide by their families.
  • Gay men are blackmailed by organized scandals that often involve the police.
  • Hijras are routinely arrested and raped by the police.
  • Same sex couples who have lived together for years, can not buy a house together or will their property to each other or even adopt a child as a couple if they wish.
  • LGBTI people are constantly mocked, demeaned and denied their basic human rights of self-expression.

All this is happening because section 377 of the Indian penal code treats LGBTI people as criminals. It has been used to arrest, prosecute, terrorize and blackmail sexual minorities. It has strengthened the already existing stereotypes, hatred and abuse in homes, schools, workplaces and streets, forcing millions of LGBTI people to live in fear and silence at tragic cost to themselves and their families.”

Thus the Pride is asking for change of section 377 as well for affirmative legislation to support the rights and dignities of LGBTI persons.

I also tried to identify some persons willing to talk and tell about their views. Most persons were shy, afraid, and some were clearly traumatised. Finally Anil and his friend agreed to say a few words. My initial questions got the usual answers that most young men with alternate sexuality give, “I am gay, I am proud to be gay and it is nice to be able to come out here but it is so difficult to find acceptance from parents and society.

Anil is a counsellor for men who have sex with men (MSM) and are affected with HIV, and he works with a NGO. I knew a bit about HIV issues among women sex workers and I was curious to know about similar issues among gay men, “Women sex workers, even if they know about HIV, can’t always ensure that their clients use condoms, because they are powerless while clients can force them into unsafe sex. Does that happen to gay men also?” “Yes, it is exactly the same for gay men” he told me.

I also spoke to Ritu Parna who works for a women’s organisation. She was much more willing to speak and more articulate. Ritu said, “I am a queer activist. I have been actively involved in my support to the GLBTI movement and also involved in organising the Pride as part of a community, that is also the "Pride committee", as there is no formal organisation as such.”

“How do you form a community in a society like the Indian society?” I asked.

“It is difficult because there is social stigma against it. But we make community through bonding, through shared experiences, others they face our same issues, so we know there are other queer people, who will be with us. So it is an informal network. There also some formal organisations that are working in this area like Sangma in Bangalore that works for sexual minorities.”

“What are the strategic issues related to the women in the movement?”

“The issues faced by other women are also the issues of queer women. Like domestic violence. When a lesbian comes out in the family she faces more domestic violence. Or the sexual harassment, a lesbian women also faces the same or may be even more harassment. Because of the sexuality, they face greater challenges. In terms of gender, they are exploited by the society.”

“In terms of GLBTI movement, in Europe it is felt that transgender persons face greater difficulties and even among the movement they are marginalised. What is the situation in India?” I asked her.

Ritu was not so sure about this, “It might be relatively, but it may differ from place to place. The hetero-normative society discriminates against all those who are different and in that sense transgender persons also face discrimination. But in our movement, we don’t discriminate, and you can see how many transgender persons are there today in this Pride.”

Ritu agreed to give a small message to the Italian GLBTI movement, “We are all the same, we need your support, we are also with you, we love you all.”

It was nice talking to Ritu and I would have loved to speak to many more persons. For example, I would have liked to know if class and social backgrounds are also an issue in the movement, and how do they deal with it? I did try to speak to a couple of other persons, but they all seemed to be afraid of talking and in the end, I gave up.

My 30 minutes for the Pride were over so quickly and soon I had to look for an auto and come back home. On my journey back home, I was thinking about another group of persons, who face greater barriers in the GLBTI movement, not only in India but all over the world. That is, persons with disabilities. In the Delhi Queer Pride, I didn’t see any one on a wheelchair, or a blind or a person with obvious disability. Perhaps there could have been some deaf gay or lesbian persons, that I didn't meet.

Both, sexual minorities and disabled persons, face isolation, discrimination, stigma, barriers and violations of human rights. Disabled persons who are also sexual minorities face even greater barriers, more so if they are women.

However, I feel that India has a very strong disability movement and in some countries, transgender persons are a strong component of disability movement. I hope that the strong Indian disability movement and the budding GLBTI (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexuals, Transgenders & Intersexuals) movement will join hands and support each other. Fight against discrimination requires unity.

In the evening, the coverage in the 24x7 news channels was quite uneven. On some channels, the kind of language they were using, was aimed at sensationalising and a little bit offensive. Some other channels seemed more aware and used a more balanced language.

On one channel, a “swami ji” thundered about the “aprakritik” (against nature) practices and that "these are against our culture". I can’t understand this logic of aprakritik. Every thing created by nature is prakritik (natural) and you don’t really need to have genetically modified human beings to become gay or lesbian, because that would be aprakritik. If being gay or a lesbian is “against nature” simply because it is not the majority behaviour, then even being a swami or a monk is also aprakritik, so why discriminate only against gays and lesbians?

The morning after, the English newspapers were full of colourful pictures. The staid TOI even had a kissing gay couple, though not on the cover page. Jansatta, the Hindi newspaper was more restrained, it only mentioned about the Pride in one line, as an afterthought to a statement by the Minister Moily, and didn't carry any pictures.

May be the flamboyant pictures present just one facet of the GLBTI movement, most of the gay or lesbian persons, don’t go around wearing feathers or dress up like “rave party on the beach” - their daily lives also move around home-office-home routines like other persons in their communities, still I am sure that any publicity is good publicity at this stage of the movement. Thousands of persons who find themselves isolated with fear, can see those pictures and read about others like them who had the courage and the possibility to come out and be themselves.

It was just the second Pride in Delhi. In the first Pride in 2008, they just had 500 persons, this time they were supposed to 2-3,000. So the movement is growing and getting stronger. The wide publicity the parade received this time, will bring even more persons into open, the next time!

You can see some more pictures from the Delhi Queer Pride 2009 at my Kalpana webpage. If you are in a picture and wish to receive it (free) in higher resolution, send me an email at sunil (at) kalpana.it - if the picture can create any difficulty for you, let me know and I will remove it.
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