Friday, July 19, 2013

Talking about Change: about then and now

Aakar Patel is a weekly columnist in Mint. I try to read whatever he writes and at times some of the interpretations he makes seem completely ridiculous but at times be brings to the fore some very useful insights. He has an amazing taste of reading and therefore collection of books/magazines etc which he shared in one of his posts sometime back. His work drew extra degree of attention thereafter.

Last week I came across this post of this on what makes the business class truly unique. The article brought home some interesting insights on some of the feats of the business community in India. He also gave reference to an essay by Dr Ambedkar on 'Maharashtra as a Linguistic Province'. My interest in language and its role in politics made me read it as well.

One of things that really interested me was the history of Gujratis in Mumbai. Anyone familiar with Mumbai and Gujaratis would realize that they are really good at trade. They are entrepreneurial and quite professional about their approach to business. The most expensive part of the city, the South Bombay (where none of the flats woudl be anywhere less than 5 cr) has several of Gujarati residents. However, what made them come to Mumbai?The article tells that they were made to come there because of trading compulsions of the British.

In the essay by Ambedkar there is a reference of a petition filed sometime in 1680s where some Nima Parekh. What were the privileges which the Gujrarathi Banias had asked for from the East India Company ? The following petition by one Nima Parakh, an eminent Bania belonging to the City of Diu, gives some idea of what they were:

"1. That the Honourable Company shall allot him so much ground in or near the present town free of rent as shall be judged necessary to build a house or warehouse thereon.

"2. That he with the Brahmans of Vers (Gors or priests) of his caste shall enjoy the free exercise of their religion within their own houses without the molestation of any person whatsoever; that no Englishman, Portuguese, or other Christian nor Muhammadan shall be permitted to live within their compound or offer to kill any living creature there, or do the least injury or indignity to them, and if any shall presume to offend them within the limits of their said compound, upon their complaint to the Governor (at Surat) or Deputy Governor (at Bombay), the offenders shall be exemplarily punished; that they shall have liberty to burn their dead according to their custom, also to use their ceremonies at their weddings ; and that none of their profession of what age, sex or condition whatever they be, shall be forced to turn Christians, nor to carry burthens against their wills.

" 3. That he and his family shall be free from all duties of watch and ward, or any charge and duty depending thereon; that neither the Company nor the Governor, Deputy Governor or Council, or any other person, shall on any pretence whatsoever force them to lend money for public or private account or use any indirect.

"4. That in case there falls out any difference or suit in law between him or his vakil or attorneys or the Banias of his caste, and any other persons remaining on the island, the Governor or Deputy Governor shall not suffer him or them to be publicly arrested dishonoured or carried to prison, without first giving him due notice of the cause depending, that he or they may cause justice to be done in an honest and amicable way and in case any difference happen between him or his attorney and any Bania of their own caste, they may have liberty to decide it among themselves without being forced to go to law.

"5. That he shall have liberty of trade in his own ships and vessels to what port he pleases, and come in and go out when he thinks good; without paying anchorage, having first given the Governor or Deputy Governor or customer notice and taken their consent thereunto.

" 6. That in case he brings any goods on shore more than he can sell on the island within the space of 12 months, he shall have liberty to transport them to what port he pleases, without paying custom for exportation.

" 7. That in case any person be indebted to him, and also to other Banias, and be not able to pay all his debts, his right may be preferred before other Banias.

" 8. That in case of war. or any other danger which may succeed, he shall have a warehouse in the castle to secure his goods, treasure, and family therein.

"9. That he or any of his family shall have liberty of egress and regress to and from the fort or residence of the Governor or Deputy Governor; that they shall be received with civil respect and be permitted to sit down according to their qualities; that they shall freely use coaches, horses or palanquins and quitasols (that is barsums or umbrellas) for their convenience without any disturbances ; that their servants may wear swords and daggers, shall not be abused, beaten or imprisoned except they offend, and that in case of any of his kindred or friends shall come to visit him or them from any other ports, they shall be used with civility and respect.

"10. That he and his assigns shall have liberty to sell and buy coconuts, betelnuts, pan or betel-leaves, and any other commodity not rented out without any molesiation on the island."

India was not a nation per se at that time and one can see a strong feeling of community centeredness in the petition.

The interesting part is that I am writing this post from Ahmedabad where yesterday i had a meeting with an organization which has been working towards bringing about securlarism, democracy and equality with a strong focus on Panchmahal district after the Godhra riots. According the head of the organization, the caste feeling runs very strong even in urban Gujarat. You can't really get a home a home easily in a society where traditionally people from a given caste or group have been staying. Its impossible for Muslims to live in the same society. Please refer to point '2' in the petition above to understand the sentiment even during that period.

One wonders that even 350 years of journey (since 1680s and may be centuries before it) are not sufficient for us to get rid of our caste feelings. Corruption issue is still very very young. Barely few decades old.

The field workers took me to a site where predominantly displaced Muslims and Dalits are staying. Do note that Ahmedabad is a fairly rich city otherwise. I won't get into the details of what all work they have been able to do there etc. Though that is where the actual substance of efforts really lies.

Slum at Vatva- 10 kms from Ahmedabad

 One can imagine the brink of disease and death on which many a children lead there lives. How susceptible would little ones be to catching some really nefarious germ in such a site that too during rainy season?  
I won't necessarily want to blame X or Y political party over here since i have been to slums in both BJP as well as Congress governed states. But i guess, all these facts really need to be put together as one tries to assess, are we getting it really right?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ignoring the voice of experts

Ramchandra Guha makes some very important points on the lack of adequate attention that is given in India to the advice of experts by both the political class and the bureaucracy.

The article has been written in the wake of Uttarakhand natural disaster.

I guess this is more of a cultural issue than anything else and is a common problem with our society. Enough has been written or deliberated on social ills, but public behaviour tends to ignore it without a hitch. Though the reasons for not paying heed by political class may be different from the reasons of public at large.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A tale on culture and language issues in our classrooms

Came across this story that was shared in one of the forums by Yogendar Dutt
The Butterfly In The Tiger's Stomach  - from the Marathi story by Mohan Nanavre

I am Mohan. Let me tell you the story of a little boy called Mhowan.
Mhowan's grandmother was illiterate. She used to go to Market Yard and buy nearly-rotten vegetables. She would set out her little shop on the roadside in Bhokarwadi, and sell these. The people of Bhokarwadi were all very poor. They were masons, porters, daily wage earners. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, and all they could afford was the stuff Mhowan's grandmother sold. But it did not suffice to make ends meet. So Mhowan's mother used to sweep the pavements and streets outside shops and restaurants. She would sort out the waste worth selling, and make a bit of money. When she got a bit of cash, she would buy Mhowan a toffee.
Both mother and grandmother adored the fatherless little boy. But both were illiterate themselves, and were busy all day, slogging to fill their stomachs -- sending Mhowan to school was not something they even considered.
Mhowan was now around eight. He used to trail along behind his mother as she swept the streets. His mother had a cup tied up in her sari. After she swept the street outside a restaurant the owner would pour some tea into the cracked cup. She would call out to Mhowan playing nearby, and share the tea and a biscuit with him.
Many days passed in this manner. But suddenly, one morning, grandma took Mhowan to the Bhokarwadi school. She stood outside and called out to the teacher. "O Master, take this kid into your school. Write his name down. Come on, write! Mhowan is his name." The master looked doubtfully at the boy, his torn clothes, his dirty face and hands, his unwashed body.
"Do you ever bathe the child?" he asked.
"He hates bathing," said grandma, laughing. "Take him into school, he may become smarter." Turning to Mhowan, she told him, "Okay now, don't be naughty and bother the teacher. When you come home, mi chunchuni, chaani dutwaila deel."
The teacher could make nothing of all this. How could he? It was not his language. It was the language of the poor people.
Before she came to the city, Mhowan's grandmother lived in a village. They were very poor there too. They tried to fill their stomachs with begging or doing odd jobs. Sometimes, when they were very hungry, her father and brothers used to steal corn or grain from the fields -- it was only to feed a hungry family, but if they were caught they were beaten up like criminals. To communicate with each other without others understanding them, their community had developed their own special dialect. And that was the dialect grandma spoke now. What she said was, “When you come home, I will make you a yummy dish of mutton.” Mohan got it, of course, but the teacher did not.
So Mhowan began school. He had joined school much later than the other boys, so he was older and larger than his classmates. The teacher put him on the last bench. The backbenchers were a rowdy lot, constantly fooling around, teasing each other. But when they were caught, it was Mhowan who got a thrashing, because he looked the biggest. So a beating every day became a regular thing. Gadekar teacher was always angry. She used to rap Mhowan's knuckles every day. Mhowan's homework was never done; there was no place to study in his house. In the wasti where he lived, fights were breaking out all the time, and Mhowan could not bear to miss the fun. And his mother and grandmother could not help him. They could not even understand the pictures in his books, leave alone the text! So homework never got done, and that added to the beatings.
Mhowan's fingers hurt with the knuckle raps. They hurt so much that he could not even break the dry bhakri that his mother had left for him in a pan. But Mhowan's world had become opened wonderfully since he joined school. The pictures in his books and on the walls of his room filled his days with colour and his nights with dreams. When Gadekar teacher beat him, he used to look at the pictures on the walls – the peacock strutting with his beautiful tail, the giraffe with his long neck, the striped tiger, the colourful butterfly. Every day a beating and every night a new dream.
Every year on September 5, the school celebrated Teachers' Day. At the morning prayers, the headmaster told them, "Every day the teachers ask you questions. On Teachers' Day, you children will get to ask them questions." Mhowan wanted to do something on that day that would win over Gadekar teacher, and make her stop beating him. But what? The answer came from a dream.
One day he came home after an exhausting day, aching from the beatings, tired and hungry, and fell asleep without eating anything. The tiger from the pictures began to prowl in his dreams. The tiger was hungry. He pushed his face into the empty vessels in the kitchen, and turned them over angrily. All he found was some stale stinking bhakri. Well, how could he eat that? He was a tiger after all, even if in a dream! Finally he saw the picture of the butterfly. He swallowed it in one gulp.
The butterfly was still alive and began to flutter around in the tiger's empty stomach. The tiger began to giggle. He rolled about laughing and called out, "Stop, stop! You are tickling me to death!"
"Well," said the butterfly, "You had better sneeze me out, or I will surely tickle you to death." So the tiger gave a mighty sneeze, and out flew the pesky butterfly.
Mohan woke up with a sneeze, to find his grandma tickling his nose to wake him up. The dream gave him an idea. How could he tickle his teacher and make her release him from his daily beatings? A plan began to form.
On Teachers' Day, children asked questions like, "Why did you become a teacher?" or, "How did Shivaji teach the monitor lizard to climb the fort walls?"
But Mhowan asked Gadekar bai, "Tumhi karpati dutawli ka?" The other children began to giggle. The teacher looked blank. "Tumhala bailadi nanwat thikti ka?" Mhowan went on. The giggles began to grow louder. The children were mostly from Mhowan's community, and they knew what he was saying, even if the teacher did not.
"Kachra dhundna pudaal ka naanwat?" was Mhowan's next question, and the class grew a little quiet at this.
"Teacher, this is the language of my family. My grandfather, and even his father, spoke this language. I just wanted you to hear it. What I asked you was, -- did you eat your bhakri? Do you like mutton? And lastly, is gathering garbage good or bad?
Gadekar bai was silent for a while. In fact she was shocked. How could she say if gathering garbage was good or bad, when Mhowan's mother did it for a living? And now she understood why his homework was always undone. From that day on, Mhowan did not get a thrashing. His teacher understood him a little more. She appreciated the fact that he even knew a language that she did not.
The years went by, and Mhowan dropped out of school. He sold vegetables, worked as a doorman, began to buy and sell waste materials. Slowly the dreams faded away. He worked hard all day, hoping for a better tomorrow, but dreams don’t come when you call, and neither do they always come true.
I am Mohan. When I think about Mhowan's school days, I think, a butterfly flew into a tiger's stomach, and managed to escape. But what if the butterfly had got plenty of good education? Where would he have been now? He would have lived as Babasaheb Ambedkar exhorted us to – “Get Educated, Get Organised, Struggle against oppression." Even today, children in Bhokarwadi are dropping out of school and starting to work to help the family. When I think about them, I feel miserable. Then I tell myself Mhowan's story. That's why I am telling it to you.