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The lanes of Bow Barracks (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

The Anglo-Indian community of Kolkata is concerned after their special representation in Parliament is abolished

A set of three-storeyed apartments stand next to each other on the yellow and red by-lanes of Bow Barracks in central Kolkata. Narrow cemented staircases lead to the upper floors. Each floor houses about two-four Anglo-Indian families. The walls outside are plastered with electric meters, their thick black wires entangled. The main doors of these houses are often left open. With Christmas and new year celebrations over, families are busy seeing off their outstation guests. The white paper lanterns and the Christmas trees lining the streets have lost their sheen after a spell of unseasonal rain. There’s an unusual calm in the air. The habitually sanguine Anglo-Indians who reside in the area look worried, as if someone has just broken news of a huge personal loss. “We fear that we would be targeted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They would throw us out of the country gradually,” says 66-year-old Michael Chang, a resident of Bow Barracks.

Michael Chang, a resident of the area
Michael Chang, a resident of the area (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

Chang believes he has reason to worry—Anglo-Indians no longer have any representation in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. In December, the Lok Sabha passed a Constitution (Amendment) Bill seeking to abolish the community’s representation in the lower house of Parliament and 13 state assemblies, a privilege guaranteed under Article 334(b) of the Constitution. The Bill was passed on 10 December. Nomination of Anglo-Indian members to the Lok Sabha and state legislatures ceased from 25 January. Introducing the Bill, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the community’s numbers have reduced significantly from 111,637 in 1951 to 296 according to the 2011 Census. According to media reports, Prasad said the doors were not shut on the issue and it could be “considered” later by the Centre.

The community describes the move as “humiliating”. “They are giving us an indication that we are not wanted any more,” Chang says.

Michael Shane Calvert, the nominated Anglo-Indian member in the West Bengal legislative assembly, says there are about 30,000 Anglo-Indians in West Bengal alone, concentrated in Kolkata, while a handful live in Kharagpur, Santragachi, Asansol and Adra.

According to Article 366(2) of the Constitution, “an Anglo-Indian means a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only”. When the Constitution was framed in 1950, the community was given representation in Parliament because it had no state of its own. West Bengal remained a home for years as Kolkata, or erstwhile Calcutta, was once the capital of British India.

After independence, over the years, the community began moving to other cities. A large number of Anglo-Indians, however, also migrated to the UK or Europe, unsure of their position after the British left. “Even though they were offered blue-collar jobs in the UK or Australia, they would prefer to go there than work hard in India,” says 54-year-old Jason Pote, a member of the community who runs a travel company in Kolkata.

In India, however, those who stayed back initially had the advantage. “As English was their mother tongue, they had an edge over their peers in the other communities as far as their communication skills were concerned. Post colonization, they were more likely to be hired in a job which didn’t require much technical knowledge because of these skills than anyone else who lacked the knowledge of English,” says Kolkata-based Errol O’ Brien, 80, author of The Anglo-Indian Way: Celebrating The Lives Of The Anglo-Indians Of India.

Errol says that till the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of the educated Anglo-Indian men were employed in the Central Board of Excise & Customs, Indian Railways, airline companies, police, schools and colleges, while the women worked as teachers, operators in telephone exchanges or as personal secretaries in private companies.

But over the years, while other communities focused on education and technical knowledge, a large section of the community “took it easy”, says Pote. “Many Anglo-Indians thought English-speaking skills would be enough for them to grab good opportunities. They never thought to bring themselves on a par with other communities, which were producing academics, doctors and engineers by late 1980s and the 1990s. So we lost our way in the race with the rest of the country,” he says.

The community did produce a mid-level workforce for BPOs, airlines and schools, says Pote. Some also work as domestic help and rickshaw pullers. “What our representatives in Parliament could have done is pushed for jobs—for deserving candidates in any government sector,” he argues.

Barring parliamentarians such as Frank Anthony, Neil O’ Brien and Beatrix D’ Souza, not many who occupied the reserved seats did much to uplift the community, says Chang. But some believe the presence of one of their own in Parliament at least gave their community a voice.

Angela Govindraj, the 56-year-old general secretary of the Bow Barracks residents’ welfare association, says the loss of this privilege is worrisome: “It is like making our community invisible in one stroke”. The fact that there is no official data on their numbers add to the community’s concerns.

A section of the community claims there are about 350,000-500,000 Anglo- Indians in India. All the organizations representing the community across the country now plan to collect the data and consolidate the numbers. “We are certainly not 296, as stated by law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in Parliament—several lakhs is more correct,” says 56-year-old Barry O’Brien, president-in-chief of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association.

George Baker, a former Anglo-Indian member of Parliament of BJP, terms this figure “ridiculous”. Baker, 74, claims that he wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind in May to renew the quota for Anglo-Indians in the Lok Sabha and the 13 assemblies for another 30 years (so far, the quota was renewed every 10 years). A month later, he even handed over a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for an amendment to extend the reservation of these seats for the next 30 years. In return, Modi asked Baker to send five names he could consider for the 17th Lok Sabha, Baker says. “I did so and I was hopeful that the seats will be renewed for at least 10 years if not 30, following the usual practice. But I was shocked to see they did away with the seats,” says Baker.

When Baker sent an email to the Prime Minister’s office again in December, he was directed to Union home minister Amit Shah, who hasn’t responded to his emails. “Clearly, the government is not in a mood to listen to the concerns of the community,” Baker laments.

Patrick Walsh, a member of the executive committee of the Calcutta Anglo Indian Service Society (CAISS), wants the government to explain the decision.

On 6 January, over 150 politicians, heads of educational institutions, retired officers of the Armed Forces and youth leaders of the Anglo-Indian community met in Kolkata. Prominent members of the community, including ex-MPs and ex-MLAs, hope to meet Modi to appeal for a reconsideration of the decision. On 28 January, a delegation led by Barry met law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to request an extension of seat reservation for another 10 years.

“A constitutional advisory team has also been formed to look into all matters regarding our rights and assurances given to us in the constitution,” Barry says.

In the Kolkata meeting, Baker says he had to confront angry members of the community who asked if he was afraid of the current situation in the country. “I admitted, yes, I am,” Baker says.

Anglo-Indian schools are apprehensive that the government may force its representatives on to their governing bodies or make the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (Cisce), the board with which most Anglo-Indian schools are affiliated, redundant. A team of representatives of Anglo-Indian educational institutions has been formed to safeguard the autonomy of schools and colleges.

Errol fears that the BJP may like to “radically Hinduize” the Ango-Indian education system. “The saffron forces always had a disdain for the English-speaking Anglo-Indian community,” Errol says, sitting in his living room, adorned with photographs of family weddings, birthday celebrations and foreign trips.

What is feeding their fears is the stereotypes about their community. They are often labelled beef and pork eaters and drug addicts with low moral character who love to party, he says. Their patriotism is always questioned, he adds. Recently, Union minister Giriraj Singh said children who go to missionary schools lack “sanksar (values)”. Thirty-seven-year-old D.F., who works with an IT company in Kolkata and does not want to be identified, recalls that when non-Anglo-Indian friends come home for cake and wine, they make him out to be not Indian enough.

In the letter Calvert wrote to Modi, asking him to reconsider the decision, he stressed that Anglo-Indians are “proud Indians”, that India is “their motherland” and that the community “will continue to work towards the progress” of their “beloved” country.

The community can certainly boast of achievers such as former vice-chief of air staff Air Marshal Michael McMahon, hockey player Leslie Claudius, educationist Frank Anthony andNeil O’ Brien, who is considered India’s first quizmaster, among others.

Over the years, they have also been trying to integrate into society and have picked up regional languages. Like the rest of the country, yellow rice and mince ball curry and pork vindaloo have made way for pizzas and pastas on their dinner tables.

To blend into a polarized India, there is a constant effort to “Indianize” Anglo-Indians, says an Anglo-Indian teacher in a prominent boys’ school in Kolkata. For example, most Anglo-Indian schools in the city have directed young women teachers not to wear dresses, as was the practice till a few years ago, and take to salwar kameez with dupatta.

Pork or beef are no longer packed for school lunches. “My daughters even dress up in saris during Saraswati Puja and perform to Rabindra Sangeet,” D.F. says.

But D.F. is still not sure if all this makes his children “secure” in India. Errol O’Brien believes such fears may prompt more members of the community to leave the country. “A whole new generation would migrate out of India to feel safe, something we witnessed soon after independence,” he says.

 

[The story was commissioned by Mint Lounge and it appeared in Mint Lounge on 8 February 2020: https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/bow-barracks-forever-11581080029299.html%5D

 Filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi, Bhupen Hazarika’s partner of 39 years, talks to Sonia Sarkar about her passionate relationship with the legendary singer, his commitment to his work and his liking for Bengali cuisine

There is a chill in the Guwahati air — as if underlining the climate of bereavement and sorrow. At almost every crossing, huge hoardings pour out condolence messages. We feel your absence, says one. We pay homage to you, says another.

Three weeks after the death of Bhupen Hazarika, the city is still in mourning. As the driver of my car puts it, “Every leaf of every tree here has been grieving his loss.”

But as I enter a three-storey house — called Nirjarapar, or stream on its side — in east Guwahati’s Chandmari, the mood is different. There is a sense of calm and peace in the house. Filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi — Hazarika’s partner for 39 years — is not red eyed any more. But then, as she says, the fact that he is no more is still to sink in. “I have been attending to streams of people since his cremation. I haven’t got the time to mourn,” says Lajmi, 57.

 

However, a month before the death of the Dadasaheb Phalke award and Padma Bhushan winner, she realised he was slipping away. “I used to cry inconsolably then. Perhaps, I was preparing myself for this day.”

Singer and composer Hazarika died in a Mumbai hospital after respiratory and kidney failure. His body was cremated in Guwahati. There was a public outpouring of grief as hundreds of thousands of people turned up to pay their last respects to Assam’s best known cultural icon.

For Lajmi, however, the grief was intensely private. “It was terrible to see him turn into ashes. But I had promised to be with him till the end,” says Lajmi.

She had pledged to be with him way back in 1971. She was 17 and studying psychology at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, and he was 45 and already an established singer and composer. They first met when he was scoring the music for Aarop, a film directed by Lajmi’s uncle, Atma Ram. “I was awed by his charisma,” she recalls.

She was introduced to his music with the song He Dola, which portrayed the life of palanquin bearers. “Being a teenager with an artistic bent of mind, I was bowled over by his creative genius. He was a rebel, a maverick, a humanist — and also an indisciplined and disorganised person,” says Lajmi with a smile.

Five years into the relationship, she decided to move in with him to his Golf Club Road flat in Calcutta. “My father thought that the attraction would not last for long. My mother is still not able to accept the relationship,” she says.

But she went ahead — to become not just his companion but also his manager. “He was an alcoholic then and spent all his money unwisely. So I had to convince him to put things in order.”

But Lajmi, then in her early 20s, soon realised it was going to be an “uphill” task. “The initial days were tumultuous. Though he was much ahead of his time when it came to work, he also had a conservative mindset. It was difficult for him to accept a woman managing his work.” Lajmi points out that she — the daughter of artist Lalita Lajmi and niece of filmmaker Guru Dutt — came from a “progressive-minded” family. “Such prejudices did not exist in my family,” she says.

“Earlier, in most social gatherings, he introduced me as his manager,” she remembers. “From the mid-1980s, he started calling me his partner,” says Lajmi, who directed her first Hindi feature film Ek Pal in 1986. Hazarika composed and sang for the film.

But why did they not get married? He had, after all, separated from his wife Priyamvada Patel almost 20 years before Hazarika met Lajmi. Patel lives in Canada, while their son Tej, who was present at his funeral, is in the US.

“He was horrified by the idea of marriage. I also gradually realised that he would never have made a good husband for anyone,” she says.

Two years ago, though, he did propose marriage, but Lajmi turned him down. “Perhaps he was insecure that I would leave him because he was ailing. For me, marriage made no sense then. But you know it is impossible to understand the mind of a man,” says Lajmi, and then advises me — perhaps only half in jest — to remain single.

The two didn’t consider having children either. “I love children but bringing up children outside marriage is difficult in India.”

But right now, Lajmi is fighting a battle with Hazarika’s son over the Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust, set up by Hazarika in 2000. “The trustees are more interested in holding on to his estates rather than preserving his legacy,” Tej said at a press conference — angering Lajmi, who called his comments “wild, blasphemous and irresponsible”.

Tej, she counters, did not keep in touch with his father when he was alive. “Why didn’t he try to know about Bhupenda’s work and the trust all these years,” asks Lajmi, who is now the chairperson and secretary of the trust after Hazarika.

“This is an insult to each and every eminent member of the trust. But I also feel that it is a label against me personally because Tej presumes his father has bequeathed everything to me, even before the will has been read,” she says.

The will’s not out, but what she has certainly inherited from him is the will to carry on. “He was very proud of me and my work. He always encouraged me,” she says, running her fingers through her short hair. The sparkle of her gold and diamond rings catches my attention. I ask her if any of these were gifts from Hazarika. “He paid for a couple of them but never chose them for me,” she laughs.

Hazarika’s career started when he was barely 10. Legend has it that he was spotted by Assam’s leading cultural lights — Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnuprasad Rabha — when he was singing a devotional song. As a 12-year-old, he sang two songs in Agarwala’s film Indramalati. He wrote his first song Agnijugor firingoti moi at 13. Later, he produced, directed, composed and sang for several Assamese language films, including Era Bator SurShakuntala and Pratidhwani.

A leading member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a Left cultural group that was a part of the freedom movement, Hazarika was known for his rich baritone voice as well his lyrics, which touched on themes ranging from romance to social and political issues.

Though a child of Assam, Hazarika was in many ways a national and global citizen. Bengal — where his Ganga tumi is an anthem — saw him as its own. He also composed for many Bengali films, including Jibon Trishna and Jonakir Aalo. Across the border in Bangladesh, he was equally feted for his Joy joy nobojato Bangladesh (triumphal salutations to newly born Bangladesh) — a song that celebrated the country’s liberation.

“Bengal and Calcutta made him a world citizen,” says Lajmi. He loved the “artistic fervour” of Bengal, she adds, as much as he loved its other flavours.

A gourmet, he was particularly fond of begun bhaja and kasha mangsho, she says as we sit down to lunch — over dal, crispy eggplant fritters and mustard fish. “He also loved cooking Bengali dishes, especially shorshe chingri bhape (steamed prawns in mustard),” she says, licking the spicy mustard paste off her fingers. “He was a Bengali — both artistically and intrinsically. In fact, he was hyperactive like most Bengalis,” she laughs.

He was a passionate lover too, says Lajmi, who fondly called him Bhupso — a name she coined to rhyme with their pet dog Lapso in their Calcutta home. Reading, watching television and creating songs — this is how the two spent their evenings together.

Hazarika, she adds, loved wine and women. “I knew he had his flings. But those women were romancing a celebrity. I knew he was committed to me,” she says.

And she was so committed to him that his career came well before hers. “I made only six feature films in these many years because for me his work was the priority,” says the director whose acclaimed women-centric films include RudaaliDaman and Darmiyaan.

In 1996, they moved to Lajmi’s apartment in Lokhandwala in Mumbai. Mumbai was as much a home for Hazarika as the other cities. He composed several songs for Bollywood — including Dil hum hum kare for Rudaali. Recently, Hazarika sang M.K. Gandhi’s favourite bhajan Vaishnava jana to in the film Gandhi To Hitler.

“After 2006, I found no time for my own work because of his prolonged illness,” she says.

But despite being his committed companion, Lajmi has often been under attack. Two years ago, she was mired in a controversy after images of the ailing singer being carried in a chair to the banks of the river Brahmaputra for a commercial shoot were splashed by the media. She was accused of pushing him to work despite his frail health. “Strangely, these are the same people who are now coming to express their condolences. I suppose this is an act of penance for them,” she says.

Lajmi was also accused of pushing him towards the Bharatiya Janata Party when Hazarika fought and lost an election as a BJP candidate in the 2004 Lok Sabha election from Guwahati. “Actually, I tried to dissuade him — but he was determined as he wanted to do something fruitful in politics,” she now replies. “But the people of Assam did not like it and they thought he betrayed the Left since he had long been associated with the IPTA,” she says.

Hazarika, who had been an independent legislator in Assam from 1967 to 1972, felt he had been rejected by the people when he lost heavily in 2004. At the same time, she says, some family members sued him, accusing him of usurping family property. “He suffered his first heart attack in 2006. Three years later, he underwent a bypass surgery. Slowly, he went into depression,” she says as her voice trails off.

The fear of death started to stalk him. “He often asked me if he would be remembered after his death. Ay bedona loye Bhupen da ghusi gol (Bhupen da left with a lot of pain),” she says in her accented Assamese.

But Lajmi stresses that his music and memories will be with her forever — even though he has moved on. “He was not someone who could be held back at one place, she says, recalling his song Moi eti jajabor (I am a nomad). He is still here, there and everywhere.

(Interview published in The Telegraph on 27 November 2011: https://www.telegraphindia.com/7-days/he-was-horrified-by-the-idea-of-marriage/cid/479227)

By Sonia Sarkar

 

All of 5ft, 6 inches, Ramaswamy Madhavan looks unassuming. But as he begins to recite his poem, Empty World, one is drawn to his rich and resonant voice, eagerly telling his story—a story of struggle and existence in Singapore.

Madhavan, 28, originally from Tamil Nadu’s Karaikudi, is a site engineer at a construction firm in Singapore. Every day, after working for more than 10 hours, he returns to the room he shares with five others and sits down to write in Tamil. It is poetry that gives him solace, away from home and family—his farmer parents, three sisters and fiancée.

Like him, many migrant workers in Singapore have taken refuge in the written word. They highlight their daily lives of drudgery and the wrenching heartache of being away from home through their poetry. They publish memoirs, participate in literary workshops, win competitions and make short films inspired by their life experiences.

“Writing is cathartic to me. I write to express my pent-up emotions,” says Madhavan as he fiddles with his phone, which stores about 100 poems he has written in his three years in Singapore.

Madhavan, who earns around $43 (around 3,060) a day, is one of 972,600 lower-skilled and low-wage migrant workers with work permits in Singapore, according to Singapore’s ministry of manpower. Dressed in high-visibility vests, mud-stained trousers, rugged boots and white helmets, migrant workers can be spotted everywhere in this ever-expanding city, but not many Singaporeans and expats interact with them.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Besides India, there are workers from Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, who are employed at Singapore’s construction sites, in the marine sector and at people’s homes. They arrive believing Singapore to be a city of dreams, but soon encounter the harsh reality.

Foreign workers have to grapple with exorbitant recruitment fees to agents, non-payment and underpayment of salary, lack of contracts or employment terms, injury, lack of medical care, forced repatriation and premature termination, says Debbie Fordyce, president of the Singapore-based non-governmental organization Transient Workers Count Too.

The ministry of manpower’s June report, however, claimed foreign workers were satisfied with their working conditions. A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment on the problems of migrant workers.

But their voices are now finding an outlet. Shivaji Das, a Singaporean writer-photographer of Indian origin, started the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 with a few others. “After listening to their poetry, many people, in a condescending tone, have told me, ‘I didn’t know migrant workers have such sophisticated thoughts,’” he says.

Many cases of abuse or negligence have been reported in this city state. In early August, a Singaporean woman was sentenced to 11 years in jail for physically abusing an Indonesian domestic worker, who was hit with a hammer, stone pestle and bamboo pole. In March, a Singaporean couple was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for caning their foreign domestic helper. In 2017, a Bangladeshi worker died after falling off the edge of a building at a construction site.

Migrant workers generally earn $13-57 for 10-12 hours of work. Sometimes, they work for three months at a stretch. Some workers can afford to visit their homes only once in three-four years. Male workers live in cramped dormitories. Women, most of whom are domestic workers, live with the families they work for. “Many employers of both domestic and construction workers take away mobile phones and confiscate passports too,” says Md Sharif Uddin, an author whose memoir of living as a migrant worker in Singapore won the Best Non-Fiction Title at the Singapore Book Awards last year. Stranger To Myself (2017), which also has a collection of his poems, talks about inhumane working conditions and his longing for home.

Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district.
Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district. (Photo: Reuters)

The stories that don’t make news are narrated by migrant workers themselves. Madhavan, with Zakir Hossain Khokan—a TEDxSingapore speaker who encourages migrant workers to be vocal about their problems through art and literature—has just wrapped up production of their short film, Salary Day. It highlights how a worker’s meagre monthly salary of SGD$450 (around 23,000) finishes on the first day itself after he pays off debts, buys basic necessities and sends some money home.

Another Indian worker, N. Rengarajan, in his poem Life Overseas: Pluses And Minuses (originally written in Tamil), narrates what it is like to live in a foreign land where they can “buy everything that has a price” but not “love and affection”. Thirty women domestic workers have penned down their experiences in a book, Our Homes, Our Stories, released in 2018.

Sherwin Mendoza of De Anza College in California, in his paper Singapore’s Migrant Worker Poetry, Worker Resistance, And International Solidarity, released in July, writes that such poems are part of the “broad continuum of working-class poetry”.

For Rengarajan, the 33-year-old from Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai who has been working in Singapore since 2014—first as a construction worker and now as a supervisor—poetry “fills the vacuum” in his life. “I write even in my sleep,” laughs Rengarajan, who won the third prize in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 for Lessons From Circumstances.

For Khokan, 41, winner of the 2014 competition, poetry “soothes and enriches” the soul. Indonesian domestic worker Deni Apriyani, 29, who won the same competition in 2017 for her poem Further Away, says writing gives her “a sense of liberation”.

Yeo Siew Hua, the Singaporean director of A Land Imagined, a film on migrant workers in the city state, says film and literature help create awareness of injustice.

Some Singapore-based independent publishers, such as Math Paper Press, Landmark Books and Ethos Books, have released anthologies and books carrying translated versions of the poems as well as memoirs written by the migrant workers in their mother tongues. Their aim is to nurture these voices in the growing literary community in Singapore.

Locals have started helping migrant workers to get their voices heard. A Bengali paper, Banglar Kantha, has reserved space for Bangladeshi workers-turned-poets to showcase their literary work, while a cultural space called Dibashram has come up in Little India, a migrant-worker dominated area, to showcase their music and poetry. Sing Lit Station, a non-profit literary group, conducts writing workshops for migrant workers.

In this nanny state which keeps a strict vigil on its people, migrant workers often “self-censor” their poetry. “They haven’t written as much on issues such as work-injury related claims and employer apathy. They fear that if they write about these issues, they will be sent back home,” says Das. Starvation, penury and death, however, are often addressed in poems.

Filipina worker-turned-poet Rolinda Onates Espanola, in her poem My Story, which won the 2016 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, highlights the torture of domestic worker Thelma Oyasan Gawidan by her employers. The employers were eventually convicted and jailed in 2017.

It reads: Not allowed handphone not allowed to bathe every day even brushing teeth too/ Can’t talk to anybody not even to my fellow Filipino/ Worst to my disgrace, noodles and slices of bread is my only sustenance.

Sharif Uddin writes about an Indian construction worker, Velu, who was knocked down by a bus in 2013, in Velu And A HistoryLook, there Velu goes with empty hands/ while Development, Progress, Civilization laughs.

In an untitled poem, Madhavan writes about how migrant workers sell everything to come to work in Singapore.

A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore.
A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore. (Photo: Reuters)

Sold off agricultural land/ Left the farming job/ Stepped on to the aeroplane and landed in another land/ Woke up early morning and hurried to shed the tears/blood.

A graduate in civil engineering from Chennai’s Sree Sastha Institute of Engineering and Technology, Madhavan would have stayed back in India if job prospects had been better. He began penning his thoughts, and months after arriving in Singapore in 2016, submitted a poem on food scarcity, titled Offering To God, to Das’ poetry competition. Shortlisted as among the best 12 entries, it motivated him to write more. His poem Empty World, on his desire to meet his fiancée, featured in an anthology of poems called Call And Response, published by Math Paper Press, in which 30 migrant poets paired with local writers last year.

Select publishers may have provided space to such workers but writer Cyril Wong is doubtful if mainstream publishers would take a chance on the work of migrant workers not writing in English. “It would take forever for any migrant worker to gain enough social and cultural traction in order to penetrate mainstream writing. Which migrant worker has the time to gain such traction?” asks Wong, who helped Bangladeshi migrant-worker poet Md Mukul Hossine “transcreate” his book of poems, Me Migrant, in 2016

Indeed, writing comes to them only after a day’s hard work, when they are travelling back to their residences in the empty MRT, bus or company van.

Singaporean film-maker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, who made the documentary Poets On Permits (2017), featuring five workers-turned-poets, says the conversation about migrant workers is growing, but it still lacks empathy. They are individuals with “dreams, aspirations, joys and fears, familiar to all of us”, she adds.

It’s a long haul but the poetry competition has given them recognition, says Madhavan. “Because of our literary accomplishments showcased at the competition, we have made a place in the heart of a few locals,” he says. “Sometimes, when we eat our lunch at food courts, locals smile at us and say makan well (meaning “eat well” in Malay).”

One of their biggest dreams is to go back home—but they often feel they have no choice. “My family takes lot of pride that I live in Singapore. It is difficult to explain to them my condition here,” says Sharif Uddin, who has been home only four times in 11 years.

Sometimes, huge debts back home tie them to the jobs forever.

And there is never enough money, as Rengarajan writes in his poem MoneyA peculiar disease/ The world’s deadliest afflictions/ cancer, AIDS, ebola/ even love/kill by their presence./ Money alone kills by absence.

Madhavan, however, is looking forward to going home in November for his wedding and saving enough to bring his wife along. For home is where there is hope—“a hope for a new beginning”.

The story was published in Lounge, the Sunday edition of Live Mint: https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/poetry-of-the-proletarians-1565942432596.html: August 16, 2019.

 

For the first time, there was no hurry to reach AIIMS today. For the first time, I reached dot on time, at 11 am. Or I would say, the second time.The first time when we got Baba to this senior cardiologist on January 1, 2014, we reached dot on time.

In all these years, his cardiologist had been extremely patient with me, answering all my weird questions starting with “what if.” In my earlier days, I used to go with long questionnaire and he would answer them, one by one. He never disappointed us. It was he who taught us, don’t be worried as long as you are doing things in good faith. Perhaps, it was Baba and his cardiologist who were never worried about Baba’s health post stroke. Baba would always give a wide smile whenever he visited him. In fact, he gave that smile to all his doctors, sometimes, I think, the doctors would have thought, if all’s well with the patient, why the hell was this hyper-active daughter worried unnecessarily!

Anyway, as I said, today there was no hurry and there was no worry either. I went to give away Baba’s pacemaker (CRT-D) to his cardiologist so that he could donate it to someone needy. I would say, it’s been eight months since Baba left but it took me near about five months to inform him that he is not there. And it was only earlier this week we could talk and I expressed our family’s desire to give away the pacemaker.

Yesterday, for the first time, I looked at the tiny oval thing. I felt it was a part of Baba which I was giving away. This pacemaker did give him a new lease of life, it reduced the chance of another stroke as it could control the irregular heartbeat. If Baba ever fell down, the first thing we checked was if the pacemaker was running okay, but every time, we saw Baba protecting it with his hand.

Today, when I was giving it away, I feel indebted to it for being there even when I couldn’t be there. It didn’t fail him even when his organs started failing, one by one. His heart was running perfect, we were told, on that night.

As I was meeting his specialist, I broke down. I broke down because I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that today, I have nothing to discuss about Baba’s health with his doc, no reports to show, no advice to take, no consultation on which medicine should stop and no informing him about my father’s next visit to Delhi so that I can bring him for a check-up. I broke down as I was feeling guilty that there were days when I got irritated because I had to go to AIIMS, had to wait there for hours, eventually got late for work. It wasn’t easy sometimes. But today, there was nothing to do. Today, even the wait wasn’t long. Today, when I was walking down to the OPD from the parking area, I recalled the last time I visited AIIMS in May, with Baba. Even that day, I got a bit hassled because it took more than three hours with his check-up and tests etc.

Today, there was no hurry, there was no delay. But there was a void, there was an emptiness. No doctor, no medicine can fill it.

[Not disclosing the name of the doctor because I didn’t ask for his permission].

 

The pungent smell of herbal medicines hangs heavily in the air. Packets of adult diapers lie on the floor. A tall frail man sits on a bed, holding a book in his hands. He smiles with evident pleasure at the cover and fumbles with his glasses. An aide comes forward and places his spectacles firmly on his nose. Now he can see better — and his smile broadens as he looks at his photograph on the cover of the book.

It’s his own biography — written by Kannada writer J.B. Moras — that brings a smile to George Fernandes’s face. The politician, suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, has lost most of his memory. But he knows who he is.

“He is absolutely child-like now — but it seems that he still remembers himself as George Fernandes,” says Jayati Leila Kabir, the former defence minister’s separated wife who is now back in his life after 25 years.

It’s a reunion that has kicked up a furore. Fernandes’s brothers have accused Kabir of not allowing him to meet them. The 79-year-old MP’s long-time companion, politician Jaya Jaitley, too has been barred from interacting with him. But that doesn’t bother Kabir, who has taken her husband to healer Ramdev’s ashram near Hardwar for treatment. “I don’t care if someone dislikes the idea of my being with him. At this juncture, my only concern is his health,” says Leila Kabir, 73.

Some believe that at the crux of the feud over Fernandes is his property worth over Rs 26 crore. Jaitley’s camp says that his thumb impressions were forcibly affixed to documents by Leila and George’s son, Sushanto Kabir Fernandes, or Sean, as he is known. “We took the thumb impression because we want his money to be spent on his treatment,” Kabir retorts. And she, in turn, is scathing about the Fernandes brothers’ attempts to turn his property into a memorial trust. “It’s as if they are talking of him posthumously,” she says.

“For the past 25 years, I never interfered in his life, nor did I ever have any complaint against him. But now, when I know that he is suffering and there is no one to take care of him, I am here to be with him,” she says.

Kabir learnt about George’s illness in 2007 from Sean who’d just met his father in Canada. She called on him after that, and they met on a few occasions. “Despite his bad health, he came to my house in Panchsheel Park to wish me on my birthday in 2008,” says Kabir, who runs a school for underprivileged children in Delhi.

The estranged wife — out of the news for long years — made her presence felt in the run-up to the 2009 election when she made a public statement, urging that Fernandes be “protected” from the “coterie” that was pushing him to stand for elections. He had been persuaded to fight as an independent candidate from his old Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar after he was denied a ticket by the party that he helped found, the Janata Dal (United), on health grounds. Not surprisingly, he lost the seat.

“It was a sin to push him to elections,” says Kabir, who was once awed by the charisma of “giant killer” George — an appellate that he earned when he defeated Congress heavyweight S.K. Patil to make his parliamentary debut from Mumbai in 1967.

When the once firebrand socialist — one of the mainstays of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance — was given a Rajya Sabha seat last year by his party, he was already too ill to function as a parliamentarian. Kabir went with him to the oath-taking ceremony. “I had never attended any of these ceremonies earlier, but this time I wanted to be by his side,” says Kabir, who has spent only 13 years of her married life with her husband.

The two got married on July 22, 1971, barely three months after their first conversation on a flight back to Delhi from Calcutta. George, then the general secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party, was returning from what would be Bangladesh while Bengali Leila was on her way back home from the battlefront where she’d gone as an assistant director of the Red Cross. “He recognised me from our earlier meetings at (socialist) Ram Manohar Lohia’s house, and sat next to me. From literature to politics to music — we discussed everything. Before disembarking, he asked me if he could drop me home. A proposal which I politely refused,” says Kabir.

But she couldn’t refuse him for long. “We met frequently. A month later, he proposed marriage. I said: ‘I am a difficult person. Are you sure you want to marry me?’ He promptly replied: ‘Yes’. It was like a whirlwind,” she smiles.

Marrying a politician was not difficult for the daughter of Humayun Kabir who was a minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Her educationist father, she says, greatly influenced her life. “He taught me not to compromise ever.”

It was this that prompted her to walk out of Fernandes’s life in 1984 with Sean, then just one-and-a-half years old. The cracks in the relationship had started showing up much earlier. “We were holidaying in Gopalpur in Orissa when the Emergency was imposed. George immediately left saying he had to fight for democracy. I didn’t hear from him for the next 22 months,” Kabir recalls.

She went away to the United States with her son to stay with her brother. Later, when the Emergency was lifted, Fernandes called them back. But things had already changed by then, she says. “George was a completely different person. He was on the dizzy heights of power and position. I came back to give my son a father but the father never showed up. A lot of things had happened by then.”

Among them, she says, was the growing closeness between Fernandes and Jaitley. But despite the relationship that carried on for 25 years and more, he never divorced Leila. “When I sent the divorce papers to him, he sent me two gold bangles saying that they were his mother’s. I got the message that he wanted to convey,” Kabir says.

Her son, she adds, was “insecure” and “disturbed” about his parents’ break up. “When he saw his father engaged in another relationship, he would ask me if I planned to do the same. When I said no, he felt reassured.”

But it was their son who asked her to take care of his father at the fag end of his life. “My son realised that George had been deprived of good care. So he wanted me to be with him,” she says.

Sean, an investment banker, lives in the US with his Japanese wife and 10-month old son. During his visit to India in December last year, he stayed with his father at the latter’s official residence at Krishna Menon Marg in central Delhi. In January this year, he filed a complaint, asking the police to provide security to his immediate family and instructing the guards not to let anyone enter the house without the immediate family’s authorisation. “My son did what he thought is right,” says the mother.

Kabir stresses that all that she is doing is for the sake of Fernandes too. Now, some 200 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi, she spends her days with him — the way she did when they got married. “He enjoyed visiting the Har ki Pauri ghat in Hardwar on Basant Panchami,” says Kabir. “In the evenings, we listen to western classical music.”

But even in these moments of togetherness, the thought of Jaya Jaitley is never too far away. “Knowing well that he must be thinking of her, I told him that Jayaji was in Chennai, which was why she couldn’t come and see him. He nodded and smiled.”

It’s time for Fernandes to go for an evening walk — a part of the treatment prescribed by Ramdev. As Kabir prepares to leave with him, I ask her — “What if he doesn’t remember you one day?”

“I know this is going to happen but I don’t fear that day. All I am happy about is that he gives me a benign smile when he sees me,” she says. And then she walks down the corridor, making a conscious effort to match her steps with those of her ailing husband.

 

Published in The Telegraph, January 31, 2010 : https://www.telegraphindia.com/7-days/i-came-back-to-give-my-son-a-father-but-the-father-never-showed-up/cid/553821

In the past three weeks, a lot of people have asked me, what happened, why are you touring so many countries together? What is this trip all about? Work or holiday? Are you really travelling solo or you have friends with you? Then there are people who have not asked direct questions but have given me enough indications that they really find it strange that I am travelling and having fun in a year when I have suffered a major personal loss, isn’t this supposed to be a year of mourning?

Well, this post is not any clarification but only a way of expressing myself. First, I have been travelling solo for close to 9 years now, locations may not always be exotic but I have realised, traveling solo is a learning experience. Like many trips before, this too has exposed me to some harsh realities of life and I have embraced them.

But it is not that I have been really planning for this trip for the longest time. I have stopped planning things because foreseeing future is not in my to-do list anymore, I have failed in it badly. I thought of Istanbul because I heard a lot about it; going to another neighbouring country was only a “paisa vasool” strategy for this poor scribe, so it was Greece. And Almaty just happened because of some major visa issue.

Why did I travel now — the whole idea was to get confused about time zones on my birthday! I made the plan in a way that I don’t get the real sense of time — whether I am ahead or behind India time — and by how many hours— when is the midnight for me on the 26th — because I knew, for the first time in my life, the person who loved me the most would not wish me on my birthday! I was not sure how would I handle this pain of not being wished by him.

But on the 25th night before going off to bed, when I sat down in silence and closed my eyes, I actually heard Baba’s voice — he did wish me just the way he wished me before— stressing on “r” and “a” while saying, “Happy Birrthdaaay, ” in a certain familiar rhythm. I can hear it even now while writing this.

Running away from realities don’t help. We need to know, people who love us don’t go away. They are with us, always around.

On the 26th, when I came back to my hotel around 9:30 pm after an all-day walking tour, a hotel staffer came to my room with this beautiful cake. He insisted I cut it.

I would remember this pleasant surprise, always. It was very touching!

 

P.C — Staffer at Byzantine Suites, Istanbul.

With no real ground beneath one’s feet, all else loses meaning

 

Images of last week’s mid-air crisis of a Jet Airways flight reminded me of one summer evening when I was flying back to Delhi from Gorakhpur in an ATR carrier (AI 9810) — a small craft running on a twin-engine turboprop. The initial 10 minutes were fairly pleasant. It was late in the evening and there wasn’t much to appreciate in the sky, so I chose to sleep for a while. As I prepared to adjust my head over the tiny tray table, I felt myself flung up for about two seconds. Almost immediately after, I fell back into my seat. Perplexed, I was about to check if my seat belt was still fastened when I was up in the air again. This time, my head touched the ceiling.

By now I could only hear screaming passengers behind me — I was in the second row from the front. My eyes moved around looking for unperturbed faces, I couldn’t find any.

Suddenly, there was an eerie silence. There wasn’t any announcement by the crew preparing us for the worst or trying to calm us down either. I noticed an elderly woman shaking as she struggled to fasten her seat belt. A young girl to my left sat straight, holding the hands of her younger sibling. My gaze turned to the floor beneath and I discovered that my pen, identity card, phone and recorder were all down there.

“My phone, my phone,” I murmured. I didn’t have the strength to unfasten my seatbelt and collect my valuables. My co-passenger, a burly man who looked confident of overcoming the crisis with a Hanuman Chalisa, picked it all up for me.

As I put away my belongings into my handbag hurriedly, I recalled that my mother had warned me not to carry this tote bag without a zipper. It got me wondering for a bit — can mothers foresee things? I could almost hear her saying, “Ei jonyei toh bolechhilam, tora shunish na toh karur kotha… I told you so, but you people never pay heed to anyone.”

For about 10 minutes, there was no up-in-the-air moment but there were sudden drops, jerks, vibrations and swings. Or was I imagining things? As the aircraft kept circling around, the regrets swirled in my head — unnecessary arguments and pending apologies — I suppose, just the way they do in the last moments of one’s life.

From my window seat, I could only see a red light flashing on the wings of the aircraft. Did it mean that the end was near and that the plane would eventually crash? How would I jump off the aircraft at the time of the emergency landing? Why did I never bother to listen to the safety instructions decoded by flight attendants? If the plane crashes, would my colleagues in the media have to cover this accident? Would they be able to locate me in the debris? Would I be able to see my parents ever again? How would my parents cope with this sudden loss? Would this crisis turn out to be a hindrance for my sister who was about to go abroad?

As I was battling these thoughts, all at one go, I felt miserable that my Gorakhpur story was only half done and my deadline, two days later. I kept wondering if my sister would be able to access my mail and send the transcribed interview to my editor. That way I would have met the deadline of my ‘last’ story.

I realised this anxiety was making things worse for me. So I started to meditate, trying to connect with my inner self. After a while, a sense of graceful acceptance of the imminent end had set in. “If this is a closure, let it be, I am prepared,” I told myself. My head was not spinning anymore. I was much calmer inside, as if I suddenly conquered my fear. I looked out of the window again — the flashing red light didn’t bother me at all.

I craned my neck a bit to look down. Far off, beneath us, I could see some lights twinkling. On other days, I would have clicked a few photographs. That day, these things didn’t seem to matter anymore. In the meantime, the airplane’s cabin lights had been dimmed — final moments of descent.

The landing was surprisingly smooth. I assumed this was the happy ending to a traumatic flying experience.

I was wrong. Even now, four months later, the slightest air turbulence reminds me of the horrifying experience. But then, I immediately recall how my father was amused to see me scared and hear my presumably “near-death” experience. He simply laughed it off. Surely he didn’t want me to get affected by one bad experience of flying. I remember he said, “Ei rakom hotei pare, kintu eto bhoy pawar ki achhe?… It can happen, but why should you get so scared?