Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A House That We Once Lived In: A Tribute

My earliest memories of Bivar Road go so far back, they now belong to another world. I was there even before I was born. I've been told the story of the earthquake that shook Shillong at the time of my mom's pregnancy innumerable times. The house shook with trepidation then, and I vicariously shared that moment with its inhabitants. From our earliest days, Arnav, Pilty and I spent every summer in the house. The long, tortuous and then painstaking drive from Guwahati (the roads weren't any good those days) involved hours of suffering through a miasma of diesel fumes and exhaust from factories (our cars didn't have air-conditioning then), but once the car drove past Mawlai, fresh, pine-filled bursts of Shillong air washed over our faces. Somewhere around the cantonment as you entered, a weeping willow hung sorrowfully on the side of the road, and mom usually pointed it out, 'See that tree? It's called a Weeping Willow.'

Nana moved to Bivar Road after his retirement from the police. The DGP bungalow, his erstwhile home, was just around the corner from this new, smaller bungalow, and both were a stone's throw away from Ward's Lake.

The driveway into the garage sloped down at a steep inclination, which never failed to induce thoughts of peril in the kids as our fathers maneuvered their cars gingerly past the gate. On either side of it, flowers grew in neat, punctuated lines, and on the outer left a small, terraced bed of corn grew wild and in profusion. The garage housed the large blue van that Nana owned (apparently one of the first cars to be purchased in Assam), and was spacious enough to hold the other cars when we arrived. Coming into Nani's home was a ritual sanctified by time. On the table in the dining room, which overlooked a large descending panoply of cottages and houses and trees, a plate of cutlets and a freshly baked vanilla cake would await us, and we would clasp Nani quickly and make straight for the table. My father and uncles would share whisky with Nana, and everyone had soup with crumbs before dinner.

At a very early age, I remember I was admitted to a nursery school in Shillong, where I didn't stay very long. My grandfather had great faith in its principal, and I would have endorsed his view of her had it not been for the stern and rather unimaginative kongs that ran the school, who punished you severely for the smallest indiscretion by making you stand on your desk till break.

At that time, my youngest aunt lived in Turkey and hadn't emigrated to England yet. Very soon, Isar was born and we welcomed yet another boy into the family. As an infant, he bewildered us no end. When we spread our collection of curious-looking coins and currency notes and stamps from Istanbul out on the dining table in the afternoon, Isar would stealthily crawl underneath and bite our toes as hard as he could. He was probably teething then. Loud, complaining shrieks would waft over the house and carry over to the adults as they read or talked. The days were spent in a flurry of activity, as we ran madly up and down a stone staircase to the backyard, which led unfenced to several levels of smaller houses further down the slope. A stone slab stood at the start of the stairs and sitting on it was, for some inexplicable reason, a favourite pastime. Smaller slabs lined the side of the house along which we practiced jumping. The backyard bore an overall look of gloom and despondency. For all practical purposes, it was haunted and we never lingered too long. But a huge pear tree stood right in the middle of it, and it bore fruit aplenty, overpowering whatever ghost we imagined lived there.

In the morning, us kids would crowd into Nana's van and pretend to be in the middle of a high-speed chase, simulating cops and robbers and car-racing and anything else that took our fancy, with Patao patiently but almost disdainfully watching over us to make sure that we didn't accidentally turn the ignition key. Patao spoke very little, but we had heard that he presided over a large family in the nearby hills, who I didn't get a chance to meet until much later at the age of sixteen or seventeen, when seven of his kids came along on a drive to Shillong Peak when I made a trip there alone.

Nana would silently peruse his newspaper in the morning and then promptly disappear into his room for a bath and leave for the club thereafter.

Nani, on the other hand, got up very early in the morning and inspected all the rows of flowers in the garden in front and along the driveway. She then prepared for her morning genuflection in the prayer room. (The kids, appropriately, called it God's House, as we were told never to enter it without permission and to be absolutely silent whilst in there.) The prayer room was partitioned off from the reception area in the front of the house as you entered, and contained the Guru Granth Sahib, draped in a beautiful purple velvet cloth and set on a wooden pedestal in the centre against a backdrop of framed pictures of the Gurus. As Nani sat in prayer, we silently watched her murmur the words from the pages of the book and they formed a soft, rhythmic hum that reverberated around us. After prayer, it would be left open on the last page read and be covered in its consecrated fabric. I never learned the alphabet in which our holy book was written but I sometimes asked for translations. A little sugar lump was placed in each of our outstretched palms at the conclusion of the prayer, and our prizes won, we'd dash out immediately and leave Nani to light the incense on her own.

In the evening, Nana would go on long, brisk walks with Bahadur, his trusted major domo, marching alongside him, keeping apace. Dusk would descend on us and those who had gone out earlier in the day, to visit family friends like the Gills, the Singhs, or the Thangkiews, or for walks in the lake or to the bustling market, would slowly return home.

Summers in Shillong soon became longer and lazier. Tara was born, and everyone was so overjoyed to finally have a girl in the family. By that time, my uncle and aunt were already living in London, and as Tara grew older, we came to associate her with our version of the proper English Young Lady, displeased by every cousinly misdemeanor. However, she fought us tooth and nail, and in no time at all, everything we said was countered with a loud, admonishing, 'Look at my face! Does it look like I care?!'

Years went by, summers turned to winters and we sometimes made the trip in smaller groups and as individual families. Armed with a suitcase of woolens, we stayed indoors in the rattling Shillong cold, and sometimes lit the fireplace in the main sitting room. I remember it was in these environs that I first grasped and gave vent to my fascination for horror. Terrible campy horror movies on Star Movies or HBO would hold me enthralled for hours, as would the deplorable but unmissable Zee Horror Show where ghosts invariably had light pearly eyes and bad teeth. The uncles and aunts would tell us ghost stories from the Old Days when spurned and jilted lovers jumped into Ward's Lake and returned as phantoms to seek their unrequited loves. The guest rooms that we shared had an eerie feel, and the old, derelict cupboards sometimes creaked inopportunely while we hid under blankets, apprehensive of the glowing dark. The one that the parents used had another fireplace in it, although that was hardly ever used, and a bookshelf full of books from long ago, by writers I had never heard of but who were immensely popular in their time. The paintings on the walls were by friends of the family or by my aunts, and they lent a certain je ne sais quoi to the house.

Living on Bivar Road was so essential a part of our holidays. We never missed a summer there, and if we did, we missed it no end. It was where Bahadur Singh Baber and Indera Baber presided over their large, scattered, and now multicultural and polyglot family when they congregated there annually. We all had our own respective languages, and a range of accents and intonations flooded the house when we lived there. The predominant language in terms of volume, however, was undoubtedly Nani's mixture of English, Hindi and Punjabi, interspersed with bursts of laughter and shouted instructions.

By the time Nana had had his stroke, we were already in our senior years in school, excepting Tara of course. We were scattered all over; some were in Delhi, two of us in boarding school in the tea gardens in Assam, the rest in England. Nana and Nani knew that it was time for them to move out of the house and move closer to their daughters. They bought some property in Guwahati and moved soon after. My parents were doctors, Aneeta mahi was back in Guwahati, and Nana needed constant supervision. It became clear to us that our drives to Shillong would never be the same again. We gradually stopped going altogether, or sometimes only for a day or two.

A few days back, my parents, Arnav and I booked into a guest-house fortuitously located bang next to our old home! All of us peered through the gate and into the large construction sprawl there. The house had been torn down and the foundation for a new structure was being built. We were told an apartment complex is to come up there in a few years' time. State building laws were recently altered to permit the construction of buildings up to five storeys high, or at least in the prime real estate area of the European Ward (a local name for Bivar Road). Iron rods jutted out of the ground and overturned mud covered the compound.

This is a tribute to that old structure that was our home for so many years, that prompted me every so often to diffidently reply, when asked in school where I was from, that I lived both in Guwahati and in Shillong - just as I diffidently corrected people by saying that I was both Assamese and Punjabi, and not one or the other.

It has been a great, wonderful journey!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code

Section 144 of the CrPC empowers a magistrate to issue a notified or ex-parte prohibitory order to individuals or groups of individuals in an area, usually in emergency situations, to prevent any bodily and mental harm, disruption of public peace and tranquility. According to my searches on the history of this particular section, it is mostly used against specific individuals on petitions filed by aggrieved parties who apprehend some danger to their persons or property. The order, for example, has in the past been issued by magistrates to prevent certain persons from encroaching on disputed property when approached by certain aggrieved parties; in such cases, the magistrates have also been known to pass similar orders against the original petitioners when demanded in turn by the prohibited parties. It is, in some form, a 'restraining order'. Orders under this section can be challenged in the high court of the state.

But in the past few months, the Indian government has gone nuts on this section. Section 144 of the CrPC has been invoked innumerable times to suppress public protests. The government uses this section now immediately when a major protest rally or demonstration attracts large numbers. The Congress Party is the most vicious abuser of this particular law. It used it recently in Delhi to disrupt the protests led by Baba Ramdev, and the state government in Assam used it as well to violently disrupt the KMSS-led anti-eviction rally. The law has become a handy tool to subvert the processes of democratic protest. The vague and arbitrary notion of 'public peace and tranquility' makes it possible for the authorities to clamp down on public interest movements when they become critical of state iniquities, corruption and acts of violence. When this section is imposed on a particular area, it is not possible to gather in large numbers to even protest peacefully, and the police are liable to round you up. This draconian colonial left-over law is clearly being put to its most opportunistic uses by current Congress governments at a time of growing public awareness and civic rights.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Precious is a short and brilliant movie (based on the novel Push by Sapphire) about a young, obese girl in high school, a victim of sexual and physical abuse at home, who rises out of her personal hell to take control of the circumstances of her life - her repeated pregnancies from rape, her inability to learn in school, her choking life with an unrepentant and violent mother, her diminished self-hood and her repressed dreams of 'being a somebody'. The setting of the home is a powerful visual in the movie - her mother is someone who hasn't left the house for years and spends all her time in front of the television and its interminable programmes. The repeated scenes of Precious cooking for her mother and her mother suddenly turning uncontrollably violent without reason, hurling vases and pots at her, are stirring. Also disturbing are the early scenes from the alternative school that she joins, where most of the attendees are almost functionally illiterate despite being eighteen or nineteen and, as in some cases, being teenage mothers. But it lifts from there, as Precious' circle of friends in this classroom, including the stunningly receptive teacher, become her mainstay - a wildly witty and irreverent group of girls. Sad, indeterminate ending. Great movie.

Lots of reviewers complained about it portraying 'black people in a poor light'. I don't understand this need for political correctness. The racism expressed in the movie, for example, by the black mother in her attitude to white people, or the poverty, or the incest and violence, or the high incidence of HIV (black women constitute the largest section of positive people in America), are all depictions of somebody's truth (Sapphire's, the director's, etc.). I had much rather know the inherent violence in the system than gloss it over in affirmative action movies.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tales From Another Democracy - Malaysia

A friend of mine linked me to an article on Malaysia:

It felt like the article was an expostulation against the current realities and dynamics of Indian democracy. It was about Malaysia, but the progression of events bore such strong semblance to the imbroglio of democratic politics here that it induced, besides great empathy, a great sense of disbelief.

In Malaysia recently, a coalition of political and non-governmental organizations suffered the ill-effects of great political vendetta in the form of arrests, intimidation and persecution under the ruling government.

The Bersih movement, aimed at electoral reform, comprises a vast cross-section of civil society groups and opposition political parties that have coalesced to express discontent against the electoral malpractices in the country - double-counting, manipulation of votes and restriction of access to media during campaigns. The government in 2007 extended the tenure of the incumbent chief election commissioner by a constitutional amendment. In 2007, Bersih organized large-scale demonstrations. They were not sanctioned by the government and the rallies were forcibly disrupted by the riot police.

More recently, this year, a small group of Socialist Party members were arrested whilst on their way to a Bersih meeting, and were later tried for attempting to "resurrect Communism". A poet, who is a national laureate, was interrogated by the police and told he was being investigated for sedition - based on his reading of what is clearly a wonderfully powerful and evocative poem exhorting the people to defend a fledgling democracy (see linked article). The police also illegally trespassed into Bersih office premises and detained some of its members. They arrested people on the streets wearing the printed yellow tee-shirt associated with the movement. They even unwittingly arrested a sitting member of parliament for simply wearing a yellow tee-shirt at all, one definitely without the Bersih symbol. All of the arrested civilians were told they were being charged with "unlawful assembly". (The government refused to grant the organization rally clearances.)

The overzealous repression of the Malaysian government is not unlike the authoritarian mismanagement of Indian state governments and the central government, who intermittently try to intimidate organizations that rise for the people's causes, with a groundswell of support, breaking the spine of political complacency and corruption.

The KMSS in Assam or the anti-corruption groups in Delhi are suddenly denied their clearances to hold demonstrations and rallies, and their members are threatened with police action. Today, we are forced to ask ourselves why, in the first place, it should be within the power of a ragtag clutch of discreditable politicians to grant permission to the people to assemble and meet for their democratic rights.

Ultimately, unlawful arrests and illegitimate acts of coercion fall by the wayside as the people continue to wrench their rights and freedoms away from the clenched fists of the state. The crucial fact about India and Malaysia is that we are both established democracies, and cannot be held to ransom for long.