The Summer of 2004

The summer of 2002

I will never forget the scorching summer of 2004, while my colleague and I were travelling in Orissa (now Odisha). The heat pinned us down even as we attempted get out of bed and temperatures climbed impatiently up to 420C well before noon.

Odisha is a unique state of contrasts. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly divine, incredibly backward, and incredibly poor – divinity emanates from the temples that dot the countryside and the towns, while poverty and under-development co-exist cheek by jowl.

That year, that day

An air of tranquility washed over us as we drove through the state. I remember a feeling of peace even as the extreme discomfort of the heat bore down on me heavily. Our work involved travelling deep into the interiors of rural Odisha to research and write about HIV/AIDS interventions and we were told to start our days early and spend the afternoons indoors in whichever village we found ourselves.

The heat was intense enough to swoop down and tie you up in a steamy tent and make you breathless till you felt that life would swiftly go out of you. As a small concession, we were given an air-conditioned vehicle to travel from one village to another. At one village, I saw a man suffering from sun-stroke being brought out and buckets of water being poured on him to prevent him from being roasted alive. And this where drinking water was scarce. Should I have felt guilty about travelling in comfort when I was there to write about people like him? I silenced my conscience telling myself I hadn’t gone there to die after all.

Midway through our stint, at the end of a day which had been unbearably, stiflingly hot, we came to a village. Entrances to most Indian villages are barely enough for two bullocks joined by a yoke to pass through; this village was no different. This meant we had to stop our vehicle and proceed by foot. Passing the customary temple, we wound our way around the haphazard lanes, avoiding heaps of surface-dried dung and huge, well-fed flies. Scrawny children played in this filth, scarcely affected by the heat. I love Indian villages now, but back then, I remember feeling more than mild discomfort.

The coordinator of the HIV/AIDS project we were there to write about, whispered in my ear, “Ma’am, two AIDS patients live in this village. But we will have to wait till nightfall to meet them. Let’s look around till then.”

So we looked around – at the poverty, the emaciated old people who sat at the entrance to their homes, and at the women who looked strangely alone and worried. We noticed there were no young men in the village and asked about it. The coordinator said, “They all migrate for work in this season, leaving their wives, children and parents behind.”

Ironically, while the men were away, a meeting was being held in the panchayat hall to demonstrate the use of condoms to women. There were no men in the meeting and the women sat shyly, sarees drawn over their faces, as the woman volunteer held a ‘wooden demonstration model’ and nonchalantly drew a condom over it. None of the women even looked up!!

The seed for Journalists against TB is sown

Darkness fell, and we were furtively taken to an empty house outside the village, where three people, a man accompanied by his father, and a young woman had been ‘brought’ to meet us like two exhibits. The man breathed in short painful gasps. Skin-covered ribs stuck out starkly on his chest and his father spoke for him as he hadn’t the energy to respond to our questions.

The woman waited inside the house and looked up as she heard us enter. Very young, probably in her early 20s, she seemed marginally better than the man but we were told she was dying of HIV related TB as well. As I spoke to her, I looked into her eyes. They reflected several emotions – bewilderment that seemed to question why she was dying for no fault of hers. Anxiety because she knew she was dying and was going to leave two little children behind. Her husband had already died after infecting her. I also saw her wince from the pain of the fever and cough that were consuming her.

But most of all I saw her puzzled. She seemed to wonder why we were there. What could we do for her? Her despair got to me. I turned away, ashamed that I was even attempting to ask her irrelevant, impertinent questions about how she contracted HIV, who gave it to her etc. Questions had no place in her life now.  In fact nothing had relevance; she was dying. What could I say? Could I say I would pray for her, giving her the impression that there was nothing else that would work for her? I stumbled out of the house finding it difficult to hold back my tears. The tears came, later in my room. But so did a determination that I would do something, if not for her, at least for people like her.

That day I hated the woman’s husband – a migrant, who had infected her. Today, I don’t. Because I know that he was ignorant. Had he been aware of the dangers he had exposed himself and his wife to, he might have been careful. His choices might have been safer.

For TB, the situation is even worse – because you don’t do anything to get TB. You just breathe. This makes awareness even more vital to protect yourself. My tryst with TB began back then. It wasn’t easy to negotiate media space for TB because it was such non-issue. Back then, other than people from the programme, very few knew about or spoke about TB. At least, with the advent of HIV, it got its place under the sun, albeit merely as a co-infection.

But I persevered and one day, in frustration, after several publications had declined to take a piece I had written on TB, I decided to start my own paper! It was easy because opening one’s own paper simply meant founding a blog and feeding it with news! ‘Journalists against TB’ was born, for what it was worth, and I had kept my promise to the nameless woman in Odisha, who is probably looking down at me from wherever she is. And it was never difficult to find space again to speak about what mattered.

The TB sector welcomed me with open arms. I have seen change happening slowly, but surely and TB getting the attention it deserves. We’re not where we need to be just yet, but there is hope because there are hundreds like me who care about doing something. And they will!

Note: Journalists against TB has never been and will never be funded, in order to stay completely impartial. Travel grants have been accepted from time to time in order to build knowledge for informed writing.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

On Women’s Day – All about some Ammas

I have never met her. And yet, it seems like I know her well.  I have heard of her, heard of her work and heard her speak. And she has always embodied the quintessential woman. Madhu Bhushan – for me, is a woman who wears her femininity with pride and grace and yet, is a fiery feminist. For me she signifies what all of us women should aspire to be. I believe that feminism is NOT about competing with men – it’s about loving your femininity with the same love that nature displayed while giving it to you; it means looking beautiful because you are beautiful inside out, being soft, and reveling in your ability to give and nurture life – something that men can’t do (at least not yet). And above all it means being quietly firm and sure of your place in the order of the world – equal, if not the greater half. As yet another Women’s Day rolls by, who better to share her experiences about women, than her? Thank you Madhu, you made this Women’s Day special for GRIN! Madhu Bhushan is a feminist activist, writer, (re)searcher, part of Vimochana for more than three decades since 1983 and now works independently.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Over to Madhu, unplugged…

Bharathi did me the honour of asking me to write something for her blog for March 8. Memories of a woman or women who have inspired me down the years. It did not take much to coax me, since I am getting to that age when it takes very little to get me to relive the past! At first I thought I would write  only about Dodyelgamma. But as I began to write more memories of more women  started flooding the page. But in the interest of space, I edited many out to include just two other Ammas in my life. Kamlamma and Ceciliyamma.

Kamlamma, my grandmother…

The gentle matriarch of her large family. Just thinking of her life makes me breathless. She started the babies coming when she gave birth to my father at the tender age of 13 years. And then did not stop till she had thirteen children. It became so routine that she was conducting  deliveries for her daughters even while she was going through her own.

Despite being debilitated and disabled by rheumatoid arthritis from young, she also became a full time nurse for her husband, my grandfather, who lay in bed totally paralyzed and bedridden for 12 long years. This apart from cooking and caring for her children and scores of grandchildren like us who kept flowing in and out of the house at regular intervals.

And yet through all this, she managed to  have time and inclination to tend to her little garden in front of her little house that exploded with  flowers – pearly mallige, the perky purple spatika and the cheery orange kanakambra. And lovingly nurture the tiny backyard that boasted of a little banana grove, a solitary cotton bush, a coffee plant and a mandatory lemon tree that never failed to yield its produce year after year.

Kamalamma, a woman of her times whose stoic resilience sustained a generation; for who choice and freedom were hardy home-grown ingredients, not ready-to-eat products, processed, packaged and sold in the supermarket of convenience.

Ceciliyamma, my first feminist comrade…

A village nurse and midwife who evolved her own special brand of fiery organic feminism forged in the fires of her domestic battles with a husband who had abandoned her and their three children.

For me, as a young, idealistic awe-struck activist in the 80s she was not so much a ‘case’  I was supporting in her fight for justice. She was a woman who inspired with her grit and determination to build a new just world for women, despite or perhaps because of her own personal sense of injustice.

Her unexpected death at the hands of her husband who she forgave and took back into her home was as much tragic as it was traumatic for those of us who thought she and her convictions were indestructible.

Ceciliyamma in her life and death taught us about the fragility of all ideologies when faced with vulnerability of the human spirit for which love continues to be a curse and benediction, both.   

Dodyelgamma. A life teacher. A woman whose life was as hard as her faith…

The image of her praying to her beloved Goddess Yellamma one memorable night when she got possessed is indelibly etched into my soul. Standing in front of the deity in the ramshackle hut she called her home, arms akimbo, feet astride, hair all white and wild, saree all tattered, teeth all betel-stained. And emerging from her mouth a steady stream of curses against the goddess. Berating her for not caring enough or doing justice. For her or for her people. Irreverent. Free and fearless. Yet full of faith. Her colourful vocabulary, infinite wisdom and beautifully personal, democratic relationship with the divine continue to inspire!

Thank you Dodyelgamma for teaching me the value and worth of uncompromising freedom and autonomy in our relationship with power. Be it sacred or secular.

The final word…

 Resistance through resilience. Love through vulnerability. Power through autonomy. There is much to learn from the vast canvas of transformation into which women paint colours of hope and hopelessness from their everyday realities that anchor them firmly. A valuable lesson learnt from being part of the very diverse women’s movement over the past three decades that despite all the questions and contradictions has taught me to look for the universal in the specific; the political in the personal; the poetry in the pain. And yes, sometimes the other way around too!

I agree Madhu, entirely!

 

Special people – their warts and beauty spots

I’ve had occasion to meet several celebrities – big and small in the course of my work and personal life. My impressions about them have been mixed – some have been lovely to be with, some have exasperated and yet others have left me ambiguous. This post is not meant to either judge or denigrate/venerate them. Like us, they’re just humans at the end of the day – we live in our worlds which are possibly simpler to live in, and they live in their somewhat more complex worlds and yet, some of them are so real. This post is to simply share with the reader, little known sides to them.

The Common Man

Who else but Late R K Laxman – the creator of the iconic Common Man? There was nothing common about him though; rather he was special – humble to a fault, somewhat brusque in his approach and I suspect completely intolerant with artifice or airs of any sort. I was fortunate to meet him and his gracious wife Late Kamala Laxman (a writer herself) in Bangalore in the early 2000s. He was in Bangalore to attend an exhibition of his cartoons. Despite his packed schedule, he had agreed to spend a short while with me. As it turned out, we spent over an hour together, during which he discovered our common Mysore origins and the fact that my grandfather Late Dr M V Gopalaswamy had taught him in college. Mrs Laxman won my heart with her gentle grace. Before I left, I asked Mr Laxman for his autograph and he grimaced, but in a good humoured way. Soon it became evident why. He didn’t just sign his name, he drew the Common Man and put his name below it. Obviously, it took an additional 10 minutes. But he smiled at the end of it and gave me what is still a treasured possession. Before I left, he invited me, more than once, to his event in the evening. I went, to respect his

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The Common Man – gifted as an autograph!

invitation, only to be sized up by the hostess, who (all but) screwed up her nose in distaste and asked me what on earth I was doing there, and who had invited me (I stuck out like a sore thumb among the other invitees, who were all acknowledged ‘high-society’ names of Bangalore). I mumbled that Mr Laxman had invited me. She let me in with ill-concealed disgust. My presence there was vindicated when both Mr and Mrs Laxman saw me from the dais where they were sitting and waved at me in recognition. That was the cue for me to leave, spurning the offer of drinks and little nothings to eat that were being circulated. I pointedly said bye to Miss Snooty the hostess and left, leaving her looking puzzled at me.

Music Maestros

I still remember the sunny day when I set off to meet the legends Late M Balamuralikrishna and L Subramaniam. I had been promised an interview with them, again, and had been cautioned to keep it short. I was confident that wouldn’t be a problem because being a music lover with no knowledge whatsoever on the intricacies of classical music, I knew I would run out of things to say in under five minutes. What happened was quite the opposite. Both the maestros were in an expansive mood and actually led the conversation sharing nuggets of priceless anecdotes from their professional lives with me. Balamuralikrishna spoke about the time he sang tillanas in Europe and the audience 419168_10150546391492424_1491019968_ndanced in joy. L Subramaniam spoke about how he was making music relevant for GenX. Before I knew it, I was armed with an interview rich with information, and I had hardly spoken! It was time to leave I knew, and with my heart in my mouth, I asked Balamuralikrishna if he would sing Pibare Ramarasam for me – and I waited for him to erupt in anger! Erupt he did, and how! Melodious notes gushed out of him and he sang the entire composition for me. I listened transported, scarcely realising that my eyes were moist. Kavita Krishnamurthy, wife of L Subramaniam and a renowned singer in her own right, pointed it out to my great embarrassment, and I quickly wiped my eyes and looked away. I came away feeling I had feasted on a ten-course wedding meal (moduve oota in Kannada).

Shankar Mahadevan – the happy man I call him! He is a person who doesn’t know how to frown, even if he is at the end of a 48-hour day. I was approaching him to explore whether he would agree to be the Goodwill Ambassador for The Akshaya Patra Foundation, an  organisation that I was working with. When my mail reached him he was thousands of

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The Happy Man!

miles away from India, on a hectic singing tour and yet, found time to pen a one-line reply saying Yes, I will! After that I had occasion to meet him several times – and each time I came away marveling at his ability to be child-like enthusiastic about everything he did. He felt so keenly for the cause of addressing hunger among children that his constant refrain would be – “Use me, I want to help.” He is also the ultimate romantic and his  lovely relationship with wife Sangeeta constantly amazed me. She accompanies him everywhere and sits where he can see her while singing and it is always to her that he directs his music. I moved on, and haven’t met or spoken to him in a while, but Shankar, your generosity and simplicity will always inspire me!

The revolutionary

CGK Reddy – my mentor, guide and role-model. But also a revolutionary, prime opposer of the Emergency in India, and very vocal defender of human rights. My short, very short time with him showed me that one doesn’t need a lifetime to be influenced by a person. I met him just four or five times before his unfortunate passing away, but in that short while, he made a huge difference to my life – he showed me the way to a brand new career as a writer. I will never forget his mantra – write 500 words as a discipline every day if you want to be a writer was his advice to me. The most endearing quality about him was his ability to reach out easily – as he had reached out to me, a total stranger who had written a letter to him in appreciation of his piece in the Deccan Herald. He invited me home to meet him and before I knew it, we were chatting like old friends. I never saw the other, fiery rebel side of him; I only read about his daring fight against the Emergency, and often wondered whether the genial man I knew was the same steely fighter. The cups of coffee (made to perfection by his wife Vimala) we shared, his ability to inject life and humour into conversations and his zest for life are fond memories even today. Every time I write something and cross the 500th word, I look up and remember him. There, I say, I’ve gone beyond your target CGK! As I have today!

There are so many others I must write about, but then, this piece will become very long, and go into many 500s. So I must stop here and go into another installment, another day! Granddad and Dad must wait, or I’ll be accused of nepotism!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Bombay to Barcelona-the incredible journey of Amin Sheikh

In the beginning

When he speaks, he is gut-wrenching, brutally raw  and candid. Without flinching once, he says, “I ran away from home when I was just five years old, unable to bear the torture inflicted on me by my step-father, mother and employer. The first night that I slept on a railway platform, I was raped. Thereafter, every night, unfailingly, everybody there – be it the older boys or people from the very system that was there to protect people like me, did things to me. It was easy for people to find me because I was scared of the dark and always slept in a well-lit area. I sometimes woke up with my pants wet not knowing what had been done to me. I sometimes had men shoving their things in my mouth. I gagged and vomited, but they continued. I felt pain while going to the toilet. There were always people wanting to take me home, but horrible as my life on the platform was, it was preferable to my life at home.”

Meet Amin Sheikh (36) – owner of Bombay to Barcelona – a café library, and an oasis of beauty, set amidst workshops and hardware shops in Marol Naka, Mumbai, directly opposite the Fire Station. While I devour a slice of deliciously moist carrot cake drenched in caramel sauce and wait to finish with the fusion chicken vada pav, Amin speaks to me, his eyes dancing with emotions – sometimes ablaze with anger and pain, sometimes moist and soft with good memories. He recounts his childhood as a ‘street-boy’ in Mumbai, the reasons he was forced to flee home, and why he hated it every time he was ‘found’ and taken back. His eyes exude warmth and his voice softens as he also recalls being discovered by Sister Seraphin and Father Placido Fonseca of Sevasadan and being taken to the first home of his life, which signified love and warmth.

Amin has risen from the ashes so to say. The story of his life is captured in Life is Life, I am Because of You, a book he has written, which has gone into its 7th reprint, and also helped him collect the funds required to open his dream café. The book is not a tear-jerker, despite the potential it had, to become one, given the tumultuous turns Amin’s life has taken. Instead it’s written through the eyes of a child, lost and bewildered, sad and bewildered, pained and bewildered – but bewildered at all times. Amin is still the same – childlike, bewildered, wondering why the world is what it is, when it is so easy to love and be loved.

The child in him is still alive as is evident from the dessert spoons in his cafe, which are actually miniature kitchen toys. The lamps are large kettles with their bottoms sliced-off, bulbs hanging through them – to remind him of the tea shop he worked at when he was just five.

He was forced to run away from home for the first time because he broke a whole pile of tea glasses, which fell from his little hands to the floor and shattered. As he speaks of the tea-shop, he touches his ear and winces, as if still in pain, remembering the way the tea-shop owner had twisted his little ears with little or no reason. “I often complained to my mother about it. She always said I must bear it and I would get used to it. We needed the money that I was earning,” he recollects.

Amin’s life is too vast to be captured in one blog post and hence I will have to scrunch it. Any reader who wants to know more about him is advised to buy his book. Coming back to his story, Amin spent a few years at SnehaSadan – the best years of his life as he repeatedly said while I was with him. His sister Sabira (meaning:morning) too ran away to be with him and they both grew up at SnehaSadan. She is now a nurse.

Then he had the good fortune to be employed by Eustace Fernandes (the father of the Amul Girl, for those who don’t know) for several years. “As a Christmas gift, he took me to Barcelona once, and my life changed forever,” Amin remembers, “I saw my first library there and saw how easy it was to get knowledge. I made up my mind. How would it be if people could meet, get knowledge, eat and drink, all in one place? I decided that I would one day open one a library café, and it would be meant to give livelihood opportunities  to street-children like me. Today, here I am; my dream is a reality. I have put all my life’s savings into this venture. I pray it works and serves the purpose for which it was started. Even if it doesn’t, I will keep trying. I know how to ‘fall and rise’.” Everybody who works at Bombay to Barcelona has been a street-child and brings special talents to the café be it baking, cooking or hospitality, or even the grit to survive.

Amin’s other sister Sabiya (meaning:evening) works with him now. His mother lives with him and he talks dispassionately about her. “I needed to forgive her before I could heal, because she gave birth to me after all. But I told her that she had to make a choice between me and that man (his stepfather). She too had had enough of him and his vices. So she walked away from him. I have forgiven her and will look after her. I am so happy she gave me my sisters.”

Amin is a busy man (he is also a tour guide) and it is time to part, though I don’t want to leave his energizing presence. I ask him for a parting message. “I am because of you,” he says.

I look away shamefaced and think, “Amin, you are not because of us. You are despite us. Given a chance, society would have negated, obliterated your presence from this earth. We are because of you and people like you. You are what your name means – the beginning and the end. Continue being you! Don’t ever accept defeat. Don’t ever submit to society’s misbehaviour.GRIN is honoured to host you my friend.”

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Written with permission from Amin Sheikh – a very special human.

GRIN thanks KHPT and Sevasadan for making this story possible.

The day President APJ Abdul Kalam waited

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The President waited – smiling indulgently!

The day is still fresh in my mind. That was the day when a moment in time froze and (now Late) President A P J Abdul Kalam waited for me. Literally! This is how it happened.

…B R Hills in Karnataka wore a festive look. Frenzied preparations were afoot to receive the President, who was arriving to participate in the Silver Jubilee celebrations of Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK), an NGO working for the upliftment of tribals.

The state police and his special security team had turned out in strength to ensure safety for the President. A large shamiana with an elaborate stage was erected for the function. A separate place was set aside for people who were to participate in the function. Our organisation had written a book about 25 years of VGKK and Dr H Sudarshan, the founder had very graciously invited me to receive the first copy of the book from the President. I sat in my appointed place and waited nervously for the function to begin.

Before long, a burly policeman came up to me brandishing a stick and brusquely asked me to move to a seat several rows behind. There were several bamboo barricades in between the two places. I showed him the ID card I had been given to wear and explained earnestly, “I have to sit here as I have to go up to the stage to receive a book from the President.”

“This space is reserved only for MLAs and ministers. You cannot sit here.” he said very firmly, even somewhat rudely. Helplessly, I moved towards the back row and waited. As the function progressed, I looked around for a way to reach the dais easily and despaired of ever being able to cross all the barriers when my turn came.

When my name was finally called, I dashed, pushing the policeman aside, throwing caution and modesty alike to the winds. Kanjeevaram saree hitched up above my knees, ducking below, jumping above the barricades, and huffing and panting,  I reached the dais. I was aware my unruly hair, which I had pinned in a thousand places had come undone. The pleats of my saree were barely in place.I puffed up the four steps and reached the stage.

Mr Kalam stood, unfazed, with an indulgent smile on his face, book in hand, waiting for me patiently. When I reached him, still holding my saree hitched up clumsily, he did not utter a word of protest. He held the book and waited for me to finish fumbling around, regain my composure and receive the book from him. Still smiling, he asked whether I had written the book. I just nodded mutely. I hadn’t the presence of mind to even request him to sign it. But he turned me around gently, ensured I held the book till it was visible, and requested the cameraman to take a picture of us! He knew how important the picture was in my life. He then gamely waited some more for that very special moment in my life to be frozen!

I still have the book and the memories! Memories of a very special human!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

First published in The Deccan Herald – http://archive.deccanherald.com/deccanherald.com/Content/Jun162007/editpage200706157679.asp

Edited version of the original.