Sunday, February 28, 2010

Take it with a pinch of salt and a barrel of rum

It is the night before Holi and I am sitting in my room listening to sad songs, mostly Tamil. Since I don't understand a word of Tamil, I can imagine the lyrics to mean anything I like. This comes in very handy when you want to listen to a sad tragic song describing your situation but cannot find a song that really sums up your trauma.

For instance, in my Hindi playlist I could not come up with a song that would convey the pain and tragedy one feels after one's 'Save Water' campaign on Holi has failed and one has to watch 2000 liters of fresh drinking water being poured into a muddy pit for people to frolic in the next day.

As the speakers hum plaintively - 'Oh maname, oh maname' from Ullam Ketkume - my fertile imagination sprouts new meaning to the song.

o manamae Oh dear heart
o manamae dear fragile, keep right side up heart
uLLirundhu azhuvadhu yaen? what went wrong with the save water drive?
o manamae oh easily breakable heart
o manamae oh dear bubble wrap packaged heart
sillu sillaay udaindhadhu yaen? the silly campaign did not work, is it?
mazhaiyai thaanae yaasithoam 2000 liters of fresh chlorinated water
kaNNeer thuLigaLai thandhadhu yaar? were you not going to save it this time?
pookkaL thaanae yaasithoam before it was poured in that 8X8X2 feet ditch
kooLaan kaRkaLai eRindhadhu yaar? why did you not cut off the water supply?

It is easy enough if you close your eyes, do not watch the original video and have met a tragedy of similar upset value. It can be a healing process and help ease the pain. Unless of course if you are a film person. In that case, far from healing, you will start mentally editing a montage of visuals from the tragic episode, that best fit the song. You will weave a narrative of your tragedy in a healthy mix of interesting camera angles, cuts and pace.

In my montage I also like to include what could have happened. Just now I imagine jumping into that water filled pit from the 2nd floor with a loud crash. As the crowd runs for cover, some foolish ones stay back to challenge the say of an environmentalist who can kick butt too! Then I kick their butt.

There is an alternative emotional resolution too, in which I slash my arm and let blood trickle into the watery pit and proclaim - "Duniyawalon, yeh paani nahi; kisi ka khoon hai jo beh kar yahan aata hai. Aur aaj is khoon ke saath mera khoon bhi bahega". At this point people are already weeping and some of them give me a hug. Then we turn off the taps and celebrate a dry holi.

My favourite is the one where I dress up in black fitting combat gear, make blueprints in secrecy, train for a while then sneak into the municipal water tank. Here I cut off the water supply to the city for the whole week and bring poetic justice. Tadaaaaa! This one did not fit in with the sad theme of the song but I liked its radical angle anyhow.

Sadly like every song, this one too came to an end; and so did my random musings. In an unprecedented act of learning by example, I stepped out of the fancy world of my montage and drew the following conclusion. Change is not instant noodles. People will resist it. People will reason with it. People will, one day, adopt it.

Snap out of that sad song playlist. Get out of the fictitious montage making. There is work to be done, change to be brought. Happy Holi

Fact as fact is

On August 23, 2002, a huge crowd gathered on the bridges of Ahmedabad to witness the swirling waters of Narmada soaking up the bone dry Sabarmati river bed in its embrace. The dry, dead and decomposing Sabarmati was only a monsoon river, a convinient sewage line at the most. As an expensive system of dams and canals guzzled 3000 cubic ft. of water per second into the ailing Sabarmati, Ahmedabad suddenly had a perennial river. As ground water recharged and the river swelled, Ahmedabad now had more water than it could drink. And that is how we forgot.

We forgot that the original intention of the Narmada canal was to irrigate and feed areas as far as Northern Gujarat and Kutch. Kutch, Mehasana, Banaskantha, Patan, Surendranagar continue to face acute water shortage and aridity. Standing at the fag end of the Narmada canal distribution system, they are deprived of water that was brought down keeping these very regions in mind.

Seats of urban power like Vadodra, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Jamnagar continue to quench their infinite thirst. Today, the capital hardly feels the misery of living in an arid state as maintaining the illusion of abundance is essential to keep the real estate boom going. ‘Scarcity’ and ‘Want’ do not feature well in a state striving to be the pinup-girl of developing India. It is ironical that the supreme court gave the Narmada project a clearance on the desperate plea that Gujarat is a dry and arid desert.

It was only in 1999-2000, that Gujarat suffered a severe drought where 25 million people were affected; that figure is close to 50% of the states’ population. Severe confrontations on rural vs. urban dwellers broke out in parts of Rajkot and Jamnagar. But post Narmada, those horrors have been forgotten or brushed under the carpet. The AMC continues to permit more and more real estate to develop, even as the state can barely cater to the existing demands for water. The citizens in an amazing feat of collective amnesia help live this myth.

In rural areas, drinking water is still being supplied via tankers and trucks. For irrigation, over exploitation of groundwater has seen the water table in these regions falling at the rate 6 meters per year. Small farmers cannot afford to dig bore-wells as deep as 250 feet when they started out with a 40 feet well. Not ones to give up, well drillers are now using oil drilling technology to go as far down as 1 Km. for groundwater. As the groundwater is sucked dry, the soil becomes more and more saline and therefore unfit for agriculture.

The government plans to spend 8500 crores to help 8215 villages get water. You and I could relieve the government exchequer of this immense load by saving a little water ourselves.

In Ahmedabad, as in the rest of India, gray water (bathing, cooking etc.) is not recovered. Mixed with black water (sewage from toilets), it is dumped into Sabarmati. Water is heavy. Lifting it up deep from bore-wells, uses up a sizeable amount of electricity. Wasting this water in Holi, car washing, garden run-off is a gross wastage of electricity.

Today the state is fighting a tough battle to get the height of Sardar Sarovar Dam increased to 138 metres. If fully constructed, so water can finally reach Kutch and North Gujarat, the SSP will submerge 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land as well as the homes of at least 250,000 people. Today as you waste that one drop of water, remember, this water has reached you after displacing the lives of nameless, faceless men. The least you can do is, not throw it in each others faces.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fight! Fight! Fight!

In primary school I learnt that if it were not for a civil society, I would have been long eliminated. Few people know that Darwin came up with the 'Survival of the fittest' theory after a recess brawl at school. He began by writing a tragic personal memoir on his blog. But furious that nobody, not even close friends ever read his blog, he eventually wrote an entire scientific paper about it, thereby shooting to fame.

He should have known; about the blog I mean. If there is one place where you can keep written documents safe and out of sight, it is your blog. Blog posts are never read, not even by those who visit the blog. Why is Coca Cola guarding it's recipe in a bank safe? Why is Bill Gates struggling to keep the code for Windows under wraps? Upload it on your blogs guys. No one will ever see it again!!

But more about the frustrations of writing a blog that no one ever reads, later. This post is about bigger issues - Primary School. Primary school is a much underestimated environment for study of primitive human culture. At an age when human beings have not yet learnt to respect the law and indulge in social niceties, justice usually boils down to one thing. Who can beat the crap out of who?

At school, the aforementioned crap was usually being beaten out of me. When it comes down to a fight, I am the complete and thorough definition of a loser. On different occasions, in different school yards, with different adversaries, I always found myself at the wrong end of a punch, the receiving end of a kick or the painful end of hair that was being pulled out. Some people would take pride in such consistency but I found this very unbecoming and undignified. The humiliation was rather upsetting. The beating up was just too straightforward and direct. It was a very final, very binding decision of who was right and who was lying half dead on the floor.

Then I came to this fancy all girls school with choirs, pinafores, hymn books, aerobics and - (important plot point here) karate. Karate, as serious as school karate can be, with white belts, yellow belts, brown belts and black belts. Now aerobics was up to my taste because we wore colorful slacks and tees and jumped around like little Jane Fondas trying to lose fat we 11 year-olds had not yet gained and get toned bodies we did not yet aspire for. We could also let loose our pigtails and wear bandannas or pony tails; a remarkable improvement in style. But karate was painful. We had to wear a white lab coat with no buttons, white pajamas and the colored belts to hold the comedy together. The belts were also a watertight agent of segregation where black belts were top dogs and white belts were faceless, nameless numbers. After running barefoot all around the school to warm up, we did a choreographed ballet of punching and kicking the air. I liked to believe that this ballet would one day come hand in self defence or even crime fighting. I was a white belt, need I mention.

I had barely settled into the routine when one day we were asked to pick partners to duel with. Everyone was to pair up with someone their own size and mettle. The winner would get promoted up by one belt. An introduction to the way the world outside worked, it was a wonderfully simple scheme. As the new girl I was surprised when a girl from three rows away offered to pair up with me. She was my size. She seemed to smile a lot. She even went and got our names written in the teacher's register. We taught each other the few basic moves we knew. Her enthusiasm was so charming. I was loving the elegant and polite workings of this all-girls school civil society.

When the duel began, the smiling girl began to kick and punch with the precision of nearly-blue belt and with the mercilessness that only one girl can show another. The beating up was nothing new, a nostalgic reminder of my old school really. But the smiling sickness of the face was making me nauseous. What was this funny feeling in my chest? It wasn't pain. I later learnt to call it by fancy names, like cheating or betrayal. That afternoon, it was just 'the-funny-feeling-in-my-chest-that-was-not-pain-but-hurt-even-worse'. The smiling girl got the blue belt she had been practicing hard to earn for an year now.

As I was sent back to the sea of white belts, I learnt that school had finally grown up around me. It was no longer all right to settle fights with a simple shoving and pulling affair. In the grown up world, fights were civil. Planned, orchestrated, many against one, behind the back and completely fair if the end gain was important enough. Later in high school I learnt that a fights hurt deeper when no physical manhandling is involved. In this ironic lesson about growing up, I learnt to miss the plain dust-biting justice of primary years. At least you knew who you were fighting and what you had done to invite it.