Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Around Arni, and the bus to Vellore and Beyond


I catch a bus twice a year, from Chennai, and go towards Tiruvannamalai. Sometimes, I stop to see my father’s sister in Vellore. There is always a water crises in the summer, and the CMC (Christian Medical College) buys its water from Andhra villages, which send the water for the residences in trucks. The land so arid and deforested, begins to change, as one moves towards Tiruvannamalai, and one passes Arni, where agriculture becomes   vivid, changing the landscape by the season according to harvests and seasons. The rail track is sometimes bedecked with seasonal flowers growing at the edges, including lilies during Easter week, growing wild. In the bus, sometimes, patients with leprosy get on, with their kin, and there is a sense that the Vellore hospital provides succour to many of these peasants, who have an unerring sense of their own self worth. The bus is often packed with others who are heading to Tiruvannamalai for festivals or are devotees at the 1000 year old temple, and pilgrimage is a constant occupational source for flower sellers and leafplate vendors and vegetable gardeners. Some villages on the route are so poor, that they thresh ragi by leaving it on the road, and allowing the trucks and buses and cars to ride over it. In hot summer, at Dharmagiri, the peasants bring perfect mangoes from their small plots to sell to the bus riders, and in other seasons, it would be grapes, bannanas of various shapes and sizes and colours, and cucumbers, kakdis, gourds, peanuts soaked in  water and salt, while still in their shells and ofcourse the ubiquitous fried snacks the tamils so love, using local grams, sesame and rice. In Gingee, the forts of the 13th century Nayaka kings rise above the agricultural fields, on rocky hilltops from where they once, as Telugu kings and overlords in Tamil country viewed their subjects. The work of intellectuals from rural communities who return to their roots, and provide new learning avenues is now well established in this belt, where alternative pedagogies have found immense popularity among the local people. Pondicherry, Tiruvannamalai and Vellore are the new hubs for the networks which orient others working in more distant fields and forests with tribal and dalit children.
Landless labour makes a living in the city, the women as domestic servants, and the men as carpenters, masons, cycle mechanics and white washers. That they go out as anonymous sandal wood smugglers is something that their families don’t know about. The twenty labourers who were killed by the Andhra police without any compunction, avoiding  the legal process is something which shocks the nation. In a country which is rocked by suicide, murder and rape on a continuous basis, we still pride ourselves that we are a democracy, and that our courts both local and Supreme are respected.
 Tensions between the States, in a Federation of States is something that is endemic, particularly with regard to water and forests. When Veerappen, the sandal wood smuggler evaded the police in Karnataka, it was certainly because the local communities provided him with support. He hid in the forests, and his reach went as far as Kerala. A police officer, who visited the Dalai Lama, and spoke about his inability to shoot Veerappen on sight, as might be expected of him, was told  calmly, by the Nobel Prize winner and commonly acknowledged saint, “For the greater good.” A decade ago, police officers did feel that their call to duty was a moral code, with its repercussions for their own sense of work and vocation.
 Now, we know that encounter deaths receive no signature of legal vindication, unless it is politically motivated. Those  twenty lives are gone,  like many others lost in encounter killings, but how do we make sure that these needless killings by State machinery is not reduplicated?
If there is no respect for  courts of law, fascism rises, in its notation of predatory crimes, as “normal”. However, the poor do have their rights, and this is to survive in conditions which are so hostile, that we cannot even imagine them, as we eat our toast,eggs and  hill produce jam, or our paranthas and potato curry, or our idli and sambar, and read the endlessly horrible news in morning papers. Yet, the poor too celebrate their lives, and any bystander can see that in the daily chores there is so much love and laughter.  The bourgeoisie often feels humiliated by their joi de vivre. But, “Seeing is Not Believing”, as Sociologists are taught very early in their careers by their teachers.
The statistics for child infanticide in Dharmapuri were so high, that Jayalalitha had to set up child adoption centres, and so also the statistics for rape, suicide and murder are alarming. V.Sujatha, in personal communication, informs me that body weight says nothing about the presence of anaemia, so the fact that the fields are green, agriculture successful, market gardens plentiful, the children sturdy and school going, and mid day meals compulsory, says nothing about the real condition of the populace. Subsistence societies are essentially food producing and food consuming. Their nutritional needs are met on hand by whatever is available. In a weaving village near Madurai, the people received their cotton thread from Co-optex, wove the sarees on the streets, on simple wooden looms, and ate the produce of their gardens. There was nothing available in their shops by way of vegetables or fruit, which they could neither afford, nor were in the habit of eating. Plantains, gourds, rice was sufficient for their daily intake, and there was no other world that impinged on this every day reality. The  Ministry of Skills  which now engages with employment-feasible learning has to take into account weaving and fishing communities where artisanal communities have to be reintegrated into new ways of making a livelihood which is locally pertinent, instead of forcing them all into smart city construction as manual labourers or cyber coolies. Agriculture, Fishing, Forestry and Pastoralism and Craft Production grow together,  With climate change, the equibilibrium has to be restored in terms of contextual learning, where cotton, sea shell, wood, lac, bamboo and metals all provide livelihood options when worked with, for urban consumer culture, without damaging the environment. This means new learning patterns, which are not only oriented to clericalisation of the masses. Its seriously cheaper for the State to support Agriculture than plan a mission to mars for purposes of habitation.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Open School and Marginalised Communities


The Importance of Open School for Traditional and Marginalised Communities

Traditional communities who have their roots in the soil as farmers, landless agricultural labourers and tribals, or in the coastal regions as fishers, are first generation  learners in standardised education. We often presume that these local communities are without knowledge. However, Paolo Freire and others have always drawn our attention to the need to educate ourselves about the rights and privileges of these communities, and how we must in fact learn from them.
Industrialisation has meant that peasants and tribals are reduced to one category, that is cheap labour. A theory of beauty is inherent in their lives. This is part of the craft and artisanal traditions of which they are representatives of. Luxury markets in India and abroad define the use of these traditional skills as essential to the goods they produce, whether in leather, shell, gems,  metals, cloth or wood. Designer culture sees these as necessities, and makes good use of them. Khadi, handloom and mirror work are seen as desirable within the capitalist framework of couture culture. Let us proceed to imagine then, that the brutalisation of these indigenous communites happens when they are deprived of access to food and shelter.
School education is seen to be the way out of an imposed poverty. It is believed that if these communities receive a standardised education, then they will be able to negotiate out of the difficulties that they face as impoverished communities.
Since smart cities cannot be built without cheap labour, clearly the State represents an industrialised world view as a total social good. However, there are many who believe that subsistence economies (those who live on the food they grow, or the fish they catch, or the pastoral and nomadic communities who live frugally in their habitats) must be supported. This is because the earth is organic and resplendent and must be protected for its multidiversity. Not surprisingly, the aspect of niche culture as being protective of the earth becomes a point of view that is seen as activist and ecologically sensitive. We are quick to presume that the genocide of the peasants and tribals through deprivation is a necessary aspect of industrialisation to which the Nation State has been committed since independence. However, the West is mortified by its own history, and in many parts of Europe and Asia, green movements have been more than successful.
Craft and artisan communities depend on the environment for their livelihood as well as their sense of well being. The diminishing of state concern for agriculture, so visible to us. is a very short sighted perspective. With climate change, it is necessary to address the needs of the farmer in a different way. The farmer with small landholdings is actually investing in other crops which might survive unseasonal rainfall. While he loses his wheat, bajra, rice, peas and pulses, he might still have his sugar cane crop standing. Mushrooms too are being harvested around the year, as the temperatures can be maintained artificially.
The costs of schooling are very high for such communities, and once crops like cotton or ginger escalate or drop, the farmer’s fortunes fluctuate.
Formal schooling comes with lots of costs, including certification  for teachers and students and blackboards, text books and uniforms. Alternative schooling actually provides children in marginalised situations with the possibility that they can pass the Open School exam at the learning pace that is suitable to them. Open University further extends the possibility of their entering into professional occupations. Artisan communities would benefit from the ways in which the skills that they need to promote their traditional arts were rated more positively. Design schools teach weaving, pottery, block printing and upto 40 other skills for a cost which is beyond the average middle class Indian household. If these skills are so relevant to conspicuous consumption in urban society, then why should children of rural communities be made to feel that they have no place in society.
 A child refused to go for a maths exam, and was severely punished by her parents. Her father tied her to  his motorcycle with a rope, and was noticed by journalists visiting  the village to report on some other case. The father was jailed for a night, and when interviewed he said that his child only liked to do craft, and everything else was boring. Alternative School Education is promoted by networks of activists all over the country, and it uses Montessori or Rudolf Steiner or J. Krishnamurthy methods  to  innovate with education,  attending to each according to his or her needs. With the massive cuts in education, and the blocking of opportunities for the poor. to accelerate urban development and industrialisation, it won’t be surprising if there is revolution or state repression, as these go together.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Winter's Tale

Kiran Bedi cavorting in public spaces was really hard to fathom. How can there be such a turn around, and how could it be even plausible that she should reinvent herself, in this new "say cheese" girl- of -the moment avatar. As keeper of Tihar jail, she brought about some changes which were indeed extremely interesting. Even the SBI started to use her campaign in their advertisements, since rolling pappads was seen to be a useful occupation for men who were chastised by the state or by their  householders.
There is nothing small about those reforms, nothing petty. Yet, when she spoke in Ram Lila Maidan, in the company of those who wanted to change the system, she was autocratic in her gestures and voice."Chup Raho! Baith Jao!" she kept shouting into the mike. Perhaps, the petty bourgeoisie bases of the Aap Party, which by its very name is synechdocal in its approach to women, has drawn in over time a roster of professionals and the upper middle class.
The idea that Kejriwal jumped the gun and ran off to Benaras, and wanted an eight room house  larger than the  houses that bureaucrats have was seen to be really loathsome by the voters. Now, he is back, and says he can govern Delhi. Let's hope "Aap" stays by its verve to stand in terms of its charter, regardless of its losses.
We are hoping for a clean Delhi, certainly, and a cleaner river. The construction boom in the city is now stable, and living in the dust and lacking nothing has been the lot of the middle class after the Commonwealth games. We get caught in traffic jams, we watch films at ridiculous rates in movie halls monopolised by pop corn eating youth, who spend as much as double the daily wage of the working class in the city. We look away as the sacralised poor, weaned away from the communist party into animistic ideologies, who accept their condition, not as the result of their lack of education, but a consequence of their karma, fix us with angry stares.
Number 1 and Number 2 have taken over the city, and the Gujarat model of development, which is ghettoisation, without compunction stares us in the face. Varun Gandhi, scion of the Emergency power centre, Sanjay Gandhi, who converted the city in its present form, by throwing the poor across the river, and with his tirades  and invectives against Muslims appears on national tv to comfort or compensate Shashi Tharoor, who has not stopped smiling since he was interrogated for the untimely death of his wife by poisoning. What's it all about?
And ofcourse, Republic Day, which is a day of national celebration, celebrating the Constitution, has become a day of jumbled hopes and victories, as motorcycle feats by men who drive faulty choppers as part of their occupational hazards at work, show us amazing tricks we would not want our children to copy. Islamic State promises to take over the skies, and with the rain, fog, and possibly seismic jolts at under 5 degrees,  which are common at this time of the year,Delhi is in for more than perforated eardrums and cracks in the wall plaster, in the winter cold.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Support to Women at Work

Ivan Illyich in his book "Gender" looks at the way gender neutralisation could damage the cause of women's quest for social and political equality. The book demands that women should protect their rights at work in such a way that the biological functions of conceiving, rearing and nurturing are not put in danger. For the last three decades, the State has ensured that the working woman should be protected. And it is this that allows the recent court ruling on the presence of creches in the workplace to be so much in keeping with the humanitarian quest of freedom and human rights for men and women at the work place.
It is singularly embarrassing to read a  piece on men and women's aspirations drawing from a four decade study conducted by Vanderbilt Peabody College, USA. The essay is titled "Defining Success Differently", by Kuruvilla Pandikattu, Financial Chronicle Tuesday, January, 2015.  To quote him, or the findings of the study "Men valued full-time work, making an impact and earning a high income. Women as a group valued part-time work and cherished community, family involvement, time for close relationships and community service."
So true, so true, we might all say. It also means that equal opportunities in school and being equally talented does not culminate in the same occupational drives or attainments for men and women. The women in the study became "generally employed in general business, elementary and secondary education, and health care or were home makers".

The unspoken matrix of women's education, their ambitions and achievements is made possible only if institutions and their families support them. In the late 1970s, the women activists who supported Adult Education, and Universities associated with them in Manchester, argued that Feminism needed the support of men. Clearly, Socialism and Feminism had a long history of mutual support, and History Workshop Journal (HWJ) chronicles the way in which inspite of this known history, the women still had to withstand the protests and laughter of their men comrades when they wanted a Feminism conference. But the men did turn up and took care of the children while work on this was proceeding.
Here's hoping that multinational stakes in  rapid industrialisation does not create the Good Wife fallacy of the 1950s in America. It could be the stuff of a new form of socialisation, more dread than the  Haryana rhetoric that women are invisible, women are non-existent in public spaces, the  uniform rhetoric that comes up when they are routinely hidden away for one reason or another, or plaster moulded into some societal hegemonic injunction to be what men want women to be.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Evening Performances


Yesterday I went to listen to Moushumi Bhowmik and Satyaki Banerjee, who organise a Baul festival in Calcutta, and came to present their work at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU. They were fabulous. Somewhere the syncretistic culture of music has always been profound, and listeners and singers share in a long history of the tapestry of time. The previous evening, Bombay Jaishree Ramnath had calmed the audience with her lullaby to Krishna which was drawn from the folk traditions and adapted to Carnatik music by her team and herself. How amazing to be able to move between these different worlds; to inform and educate at the same time through the intensity of one's emotions and passions.
Moushumi spoke about a woman fakir who travelled between Bangladesh and India, without papers, without identity kit of any kind, travelling in trains and buses, going from site to site, pilgrimage hub to periphery singing her songs, and bringing music from these different places into her repertoire. Against the notion of terror, is the concept of mystical music which crosses boundaries.
When we think of maps, we often imagine them as even  and still landscapes, as we see them in textbooks, government maps, newspapers or digital presentations, unfolding for our use as we make our journeys real or surreal across the web of time and space. It's people who make maps what they really are. Music informs us of this ability they have to create bridges, and in the new world, electronic aspects become the key to sharing and innovative. Many years ago, Shankar Baruah established a base in Sattal for creative artists to meet, and electronic and eversions were the repertoire that young people and some elders brought to the site, where they embraced the concept of the momentary passion of hearing, with the long history of technologisation and art.
But the momentary is the base of the formation of memory. Who can forget Kishori Amonkar's grandeur? Or the lustre of M.S Subbulakshmi. The two combine in Bombay Jaishree, whose composure and joy are all her own. Archivalising music however, is on  a completely different plane. For Sociologists, the film and the tape recorder are emerging as the most important ways of thinking about the present. For the School of Arts and Aesthetics, it is their very discipline, and subsumed within its  everyday palette of methods.
Musicians bring to us the ability to create worlds which are different from the one we know, primarily because they are working with experience, the most intimate of our sensations. What do we feel, how can their  ardour, and intensity of feeling make us change the way in which we think about the world? For them theologies and technologies are only ways of reaching that assimilative space, where they are one with the cosmos and with people. My former neighbours Anurpriya Deotale, and Mukesh, used to fill the corridors with their music and it spilled out of their house at all odd hours, violin and sarod, separately or together. They moved on, but the memory of those years when they were experimenting together were significant spaces for their friends. Sometimes, the idea that the work people do is intensely for themselves, and yet, in sharing it, it becomes something else is the most profound space for the performer. In giving, they become one with the audience. Moushumi and her colleagues
while singing, communicate that going to Baghdad or going to Nizamuddin Auliya can be a singular moment for the Baul fakir. And it is in that vedantic moment, that Indians have been consumed, whether it is historically notated or not. For me, Arunachala and Ramanasramam, in Tiruvannamalai become the space of the still heart. The mind is free, and whatever the political conditions people will think for themselves.
In secular India, the freedom to believe has always been a constitutional right, and when the pathologies of self definition raise themselves in violence and corruption, the citizens do evolve ways by which these can be controlled. Democracy is the right to free expression, but when religion, to which music is so inextricably linked by its somatic power, turns depraved, then freedom to practise becomes a question in itself. Leela Samson and Ira Bhaskar, resigning from the Censor Board is a  powerful moment which communicates how democracies respond when authority is bypassed, and the whipping up of  incendiary emotions is thought to be the right of politicians and cult leaders.
Yesterday night I heard the cult music of the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Ram Rahim Singh Insan on tv, and thought, this is like the American cults of drugs and death in the early 70s. They were terrifying to read about,  for books were written about it, as people, specially young people were murdered or committed suicide in the company of these cult leaders who fed on a particular kind of abysmal devotion of unsuspecting adulation. So that's what makes syncretism by itself interesting to study, since the Human Rights Questions of the right to life and dignity are always at the forefront.

Translation as Praxis

When I joined JNU in 1997 as a teacher, it was because I had spent almost twenty years wanting to return to my alma mater. Ofcourse, the 18 years at Delhi University had been spent very well. I had received a good training in narrative analyses, made friends, got gainful occupation at Hindu College, which shared a wall with Delhi School of Economics, where I was a research student at the Department of Sociology. My three daughter grew up in the environment of academia, friends dropped in, their father was extremely supportive, inspite of work demands of his own. The children were in the company of kids who had academic parents, and every evening their father took them to colleagues' houses while I completed the cooking and other daily chores. Every morning, he dropped them to their bus stops (they all went to different schools) and left their packed lunches with the kind neighbour who ran a creche.

1997 was the fulfillment of the academic dream to teach my own specialisaton. It was strenuous, it was demanding. I was quite startled. My former teachers gave me an Mphil Compulsory (ten a.m class) and a new experiment which was to teach Language students subsidiary Sociology, a 3 pm class. When I said, "But I have just joined!", the Chairperson at that time said "But you are a seasoned teacher! Ofcourse you can handle it!" Keeping a job is harder than getting one, so I went about my duties. It was totally exhausting for  someone like me, to time my day by the Contract bus which dropped me to work at 9 am, after meandering all over Delhi,  and collected me at 5.30 pm, with a 45 minute traffic jam halt at South Extension market in the evenings.
After two years I started falling down from exhaustion, and in the first instance, broke three bones in one arm, and when the plaster was off, I broke six bones in the other arm. So effectively, I was handicapped for six weeks. After that, I shifted to the campus, and life became easier, but it meant that my husband and I could not live together again, since I became a class room teacher, singleparenting three very young children, and he became a well known seminarist and public intellectual, describing himself as a social science nomad.
The class I taught to the Language students was a eye opener. There were 25 of them. They came from different language belts. They were essentially comfortable in a variety of regional languages, including the dominant Hindi and Urdu, but were specialising in various European languages such as German, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, and also Asian and Indian languages such as  Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Urdu and Hindi. One or two spoke competent English. How was I to teach them the concepts and terms of Sociology? We devised a very elegant platonic system of dialogue, discussion, and debate through mutual translation. Those who understood explained to the others. For me, that was the essence of JNU, not just self learning, but teaching one another through discussion and loyalty to the quest. As a teacher, when I ask students to do something, I expect them to follow my  request, and to explain to me why not, if they do not. The dialogue comes from how they interpret my request, for one gets a variety of responses. For me, the consensus that teaching methodologies vary from teacher to teacher is the most exciting thing about JNU. It would be a great pity if the idea that one syllabus, one window of learning would rule over the idea of learning by enquiry, something that our JNU teachers provided as such a valuable substitute for learning by rote.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Genealogies as Maps

Very often the past appears to us through memories of the things we did, and the people we know. One of the earliest classes I attended as a research student in Delhi University in 1979, was to sit in  Prof JPS Uberoi's M.A class, where he walked in, looked at the kinship map drawn on the board, and said "So how many of these people are dead?" The space of reading genealogies as markers of time was an important moment. I realised then that when we think of these kinship maps we are really working with how institutionalised memories are handed down, and how useful they are for sociologists working with land, property, houses,  or movable property like jewellery and poetry and narrative.
Today, the contexts in which we think about time and memory, thirty five years later, are much more significant, because the debates have changed completely. Feminism and Dalit Sociology have worked into the narrative spaces in such a way, that the questions of land, property, knowledge and personal property such as money, jewellery or recipes have undergone fundamental transformation.  The world no longer looks the way it did forty years ago. We struggle with terms and concepts which are quite outdated, primarily because we think that if the village has changed, it has become a new entity, or become extinct. Actually, people carry the mindsets of tradition in themselves. They may look as if they have changed, but in reality, they are what tradition expects of them. This truth is however juggled in the face of the fluidity and flexibility of their own identities. They may conform to tradition, but when required they can leap frog out of it.
When we think of  how easily young women absorb and imitate the traditional roles of the past, it is not camaflouge, but the reality of their existential spaces. They enjoy the roles that they now have, as young married women, or as expectant mothers, or as warriors in the work force. They are well able to juggle these roles,  because for them tradition and post modernity are conjoined. Because there is a  class hierarchy that differs from state to state, women are expected to conform within the role expectations that are placed on them. And with increasing technologisation at the work place, and its concomitant expectations, young women find themselves able to fill these roles, because adaptation is the first sign of resilience and creativity.
The idea of Smart Cities draws in a concept of good governance, creativity and post modern conditions of life, primarily because rapid industrialisation will be seen to give people what they dream for and hope. Yet, it presumes that people want malls, gmt food and synthetic clothes. The drive to be modern is located in the hierarchy or producers and consumers. Rapid industrialisation does not ask people permission. It presumes that people will want to go with it, because it is the right choice made by the Government, elected by the people. Democracy presumes that this arrangement of ambitions and drives politically forged is to give people what they want. For Gandhi, the needs of even one person had to be taken into respectful consideration, so he was certainly not thinking of numbers as majoritiarian or minoritarian.
Village societies are able to replenish the losses that have occurred by thinking of new modalities of resource regeneration. In Pallakad in Kerala farmers are being encouraged to engage in vegetable production so that the dependence on Tamil Nadu will decrease. Farmers are being taught to grow vegetables, even if they do not own land, in makeshift sacks filled with earth. Conversely, migrant labourers in Kannadi village, 16 kms for Pallakad, were found by the police, to be growing narcotic hemp for their own use and sale, around their ramshackle living quarters, and producing illicit ganja from it.
Agriculture and Farming are now thought to be catchwords for extinction. GMT salesmen would like to use climate change as a term by which they assure us that they have the solution for the losses that lie ahead. Alternative Education, like the Greens Movement actually depends  on practise and its concomitant successes and risks. When Kerala locates its own ambition to be foresighted in thinking about food for its people it is oriented to policy which has brought it good results in the past. Why should we believe that the rural hinterland is only for purposes of feeding the cities.