Friday, August 26, 2011

The Dill of a Pakora

I have a dream.  Mind you, nothing as lofty and noble as Martin Luther King’s.

But a dream, nevertheless

Of a kitchen garden. Lush with greens of every denomination, bejewelled with early morning dew. Dotted by surprises of tomatoes, bursting their plump scarlet-ness upon you every now and then. Over there, a royal court of brinjals -  some long and pendulous, others short and rotund like giant eggs; some green, others purple; dangling heavily from the stems like freshly oil-massaged, soporific potentates. And over here, a monitor of lady’s fingers; admonishingly pointing their primly elegant green selves to the mud below. As if to say, look, that is where those uncouth potatoes are fattening up. In the distance, the Brassica family – radish and cauliflower and cabbage rising up in impeccable, soldierly rows. And because they are so pretty with their sunshine yellow flowers, there will be mustard plants artlessly scattered in between.

Of course the garden won’t be complete without the vines. The horizontal ones creeping tiredly along the ground because swelling on them, like the bellies of some invisible overweight garden gnomes would be the pumpkins; some pale-powdery pista, some mutli-hued like the swirls of a caliph’s turban. Then the vertical ones, clambering up with their delicate, downy tendrils that curl and cling in ways that would shame the kiss curls of a yesteryear heroine. And from which hang - like the imagination of a mad, magical bottle maker – the gourds : cucumber and ridge gourd and karela.

There will be a lemon tree  or two, studded with lemons glowing like electric lights with skins so fine, they are called “kagzhi”. And there’ll be the mandatory curry leaf bushes whose leaves I will brush ever so gently as I pass by so that they release their fabulous lemony pungency for me to sniff and be transported. There will be chilli plants with wicked little stilettoes of chillies, pots of baroque-like pudina and coriander like green lace picked out in white and mauve....

I dream of meandering every morning through this garden, muttering happily to myself, planning the lunch menu as I pluck this and that and the other….

Alas, it remains a dream.

Oh, it’s not that I haven’t managed to get pots of pudina going (even a baby can grow these – just stick a cutting into a soil and watch), a few patches of coriander, a chilli plant or two. I‘ve had occasional triumphs with a brinjal here and a methi there. I’ve even grown sweet potato and yam and one year – pigeon pea (tuar dal)!. But they’ve all been sporadic, patchy efforts, nothing that can come anywhere close to being called a kitchen garden.

Nevertheless I persevere, clinging on to that dream. I buy books and CD’s on organic vegetable farming. I assiduously trawl the Net for expert tips and advice. I read longingly about other people’s successes and gaze jealously at their pictures of perfectly formed cauliflowers and tomatoes that must surely be fake. And every now and then, making a fresh batch of resolutions and swearing to spend less time on Twitter, I sow seeds. Some that I get from the vegetables used for that day’s lunch, others that I buy.

And so, a few months ago, when I was thus once again seized and taunted by this vision, I got myself a whole new batch of assorted seeds. French beans, brinjal, tomato, spinach, ridge gourd, even onions. But life, as always, had other plans. The weather got sickeningly hot and dry and we decided to get the house renovated; to have it ready before the monsoons struck. By the time that was done, all that was left of my beautiful batch of seeds was one little soggy, rotting bag of dill seeds.

Now before I continue, let me tell you a bit about dill. It’s a gorgeous, fragrant green that doubles up both as vegetable (the leaves) and spice (the seeds). In India it is known variously as “suwa” (Hindi), saddakuppai (Tamil) and “sappsige” (Kannada).  (Dill is a particular favourite with South Indian cooks, added to all kinds of dishes including sambar and vadas.) Cousin to jeera and coriander, dill was used by the ancient Greeks as a “sleeping pill”. In fact, the name “dill” probably originates from the Old Norse dilla or dylla which means to “calm”, “soothe”. In Ayurveda, it’s an old friend is used to treat flatulence, as mouth freshener, even to improve lactation.Dill also figures as the star ingredient in a modern day medicine - gripe water! Last but not the least, the gorgeous little umbrellas of sunshine-coloured lace that are dill flowers are butterfly magnets!

So, back to my story. There I was, cleaning up post-renovation debris and contemplating this sorry, soggy bag of dill seeds and was just about to chuck it with the rest of garbage when I remembered my seed rule. Never throw away seeds; instead scatter them in the mud because who knows what will happen. And right I was because before long, I had a beautiful little patch of baby dill struggling bravely up from the soil – delicate, fern-like plants with leaves looked like deep green feathers! And every morning, I ‘d visit them; spraying them gently with water and cooing encouraging things to them before getting on with the business of the day.

A few days ago, lunch was being planned and we had decided on spartan fare - plain tuar dal with carrot and methi leaves bhaji. But the greens man let us down. So no methi. Then I remembered dill-patch and asked my mum if we could substitute methi with dill. She wasn’t very enthusiastic about the idea and instead reminded me of a recipe that used to get regularly made in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen – dill pakoras….

And so, here they are. You may be thinking – pakora is a pakora is a pakora. So what’s so special about these. Well, it’s the dill that makes it so special. Sensory things are very hard to describe and perhaps taste is one of the hardest, but I’ll try. Many distinctive flavours in foods are also very strong ones. Not so in the case of dill. It’s a very subtle but very unmistakable presence – I’d say it’s the lovechild  of lemon and pepper….

This recipe is so simple you can whip it up in a matter of minutes. The tricky bit of course is to have that dill handy….018

So, for every 15 pakoras, you’d need

A large cup of besan

1/3 cup of dill leaves washed and chopped very fine

1 small onion chopped fine

2-3 green chillies, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander

A pinch of hing

Salt to taste (about 3/4 tsp)

(You can reduce or increase each one of these ingredients according to your individual preference)




Mix all the ingredients well with a little water to form a thick batter. (Make sure the batter isn’t runny otherwise the pakoras will “drink” up oil like sponges when you fry them.)

Heat oil in a kadai. When it is very hot, drop spoonfuls of the batter into the oil.Fry till golden brown.



I have written this for two reasons. First because it’s always very gratifying to share food – in any which way.  hare this simple but delicious food with you. Second because I hope it will motivate me one day to make my dream come true….

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Sluts in My Neighbourhood

I wrote this a few weeks ago when the Besharmi Morcha/SlutWalk was supposed to happen….
They go by the grand name of “pourakarmikas” but what they do isn’t so grand. They are the men and women who clear the city’s garbage – everything from leaves to shit of every denomination including human. .
Shovelling shit – literally or figuratively – has never been the most coveted of jobs and a pourakarmika’s is no different. Add to that the fact that the pay sucks – and in many ways. For example, a large majority of pourakarmikas are contract labourers, at the mercy of their unscrupulous, corrupt contractor bosses. So their salaries are almost never paid on time, often not arriving before the 15th or the 20th of the month. Then, in many cases, the contractor makes them for the stipulated amount, but half or even less than half of it is actually paid. The rest goes into the contractor’s already bulging coffers.
The working conditions are not just unsanitary but also dangerous, sometimes even life-threatening. Most work with bare hands, handling stuff like broken glass, syringes, dead carcasses of animals, hospital and toxic waste. So, disease and injury is common – ranging from asthma, tuberculosis, heart trouble to gangrene even loss of limbs and fingers. And sometimes, these workers have to go down manholes that may be filled with poisonous gases that can – and have – killed. So strikes are commonplace; desperate measures for a desperate people; sometimes so desperate that during one such strike, two pourakarmikas poured “night soil” over themselves to get the attention of the concerned authorities! (Wikipedia describes night soil as “a euphemism for human excrement collected at night from cesspools, privies, etc. and sometimes used as a fertilizer.)
But, the women face occupational hazards of a different kind. Many are young, beautiful girls (whom I itch to photograph but am too self-conscious to do so!), but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t prevent the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle harassment that they are often subjected to by their male supervisors – “special treatment”, just because they are women.
A few days ago, the daily early morning collection of garbage did not happen. Another strike, I thought and didn’t pay any further attention to it apart from grumbling about having day-old garbage in the house. The newspapers confirmed the strike and the story was a familiar one. A high-ranking local official had been getting the women pourkarmikas to work at his house, often beyond working hours. It’s probably a common enough occurrence, so I thought, there must have been something else that made the women protest and their men to join them and go on strike .
I found out what that something was the next morning. Once a week, gangs of pourkarmikas are assigned to different parts of the city to sweep and clean all the roads. The ones that come to our area consist of mostly women and I have befriended a few – they do a special cleaning of the rain water drain in front of my house for a tip. Gauri, Nagamani, Lakshmi, Rangamma – their names are beautiful, these women with skins of chocolate satin against which gleam impossibly white teeth when they laugh.
Some days, if I’m not outside when they arrive, one of them will call.
“Amma!” Just one loud, bell-like yell and I know who it is…..
And some days, they’ll gather for a drink of water, flocking around me like chirpy birds, their voices laughing and calling out to each, cutting through the air like clear, shrill, sharp bird calls.
This was one such morning.
I leant on the gate, feeling the sun gently toasting my back as I watched the women wield their long-handled brooms in the drain.
“So, strike, hahn? Why this time?” I said, opening the innings
And it all came tumbling out - it seemed that having to run personal errands for the official was the least of their woes.
Don’t come to work with your faces washed clean, they tell us, Amma.
Don’t put kumkumam on your foreheads, they say.
Don’t wear “good” sarees to work, they tell us.
I listened, disbelieving…
We have children and homes to look after, Amma. And sometimes, on some days of the month, we are not so well. So we come late to work or we can’t come at all. They cut our salaries – 150 rupees for each day that we are late or absent.
We work all day in the open, under the hot sun, Amma. We have no drinking water and the constant sweeping and inhaling of dust gives us breathing problems. The mornings are really bad –  sometimes we can barely breathe…
One woman picked where the other left off, the rhythmic sounds of their brooms providing accompaniment for a sorry, shocking litany. But the most horrible of all was yet to come…
We work all day in the open, Amma. We have no toilets to go to. So, when we find a place where we can go and when we sit down to relieve ourselves, they come and bend down and look.
Just for a few seconds, I thought I hadn’t heard right. But I had. I felt rage welling up.
I started to blubber, “Why don’t you hit them….scream….why don’t you…what about your men……”. I petered out because I could see no rage on these women’s faces; just a sad,stoic blankness.
We have told them, Amma – we are women and we have problems that we can’t tell you and if we did, you wouldn’t understand. So until you find somebody who can, it’s brooms down.
As I stood there and watched the women walk away, dragging their brooms behind them, I remembered that all of these last few weeks, there has been so much talk about Slutwalk. Or should I say, “Besharmi Morcha”?
It’s true that a woman is seen to be “asking for it” if she dresses a particular way. But she’s also a slut for so many other reasons. She is a slut when her man dies or worse still, leaves her; or worst of all, when she has no man at all. She is a slut when she has too much education. Or too little education. She’s a slut when she talks to much, laughs too much and when she dares to have an opinion of her own and voices it. Or worse still, that she is shameless enough to show that she has a mind. She’s a slut if she does anything without the permission of her father/husband/brother; and when they are all gone, her son.
And she’s a slut when she lifts up her saree and squats in public to relieve herself because there is no private place where she can do so.
And sometimes, she’s a slut just because she is a woman.
And for all this sluttish behavior, she has been humiliated, beaten, molested, raped, maimed, burned, even killed.
And it has nothing at all to do with wearing tight jeans or a t-shirt or showing her cleavage
So – Besharmi Morcha?
Why not?
But my question is this. Will it fight for the right for hundreds of thousands of besahrmi women like my Nagamanis and Lakshmis and Gauris and Rangammas all over India to pee and defecate in dignity?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tomato Rasam and Possible-Ness

It’s the simplest thing in the world. Tomatoes – lots of them - pressure-cookered to oblivion with tuar dal. Then mish-mashed, watered to the desired level of slurp-soupi-ness, seasoned with salt, rasam powder, lashings of curry leaves and simmered for a few  gentle minutes. And finally tempered with a tadka of oil (some favour ghee), mustard seeds, red chillies and hing. Served with steamed rice, ghee and a pile of poppadum. Or then, sipped by itself with a dollop of white butter.


My best friend was pregnant; a precious event that came after 9 years of marriage, many wrong turns and much heart break. But, as with most pregnancies, the bouts of morning sickness made the first few weeks hard, especially so because she continued to go to work. We experimented with all kinds of food, of various degrees of blandness and don’t-make-waves-ness. But nothing worked and almost nothing stayed down. Some days, the very thought of food made her nauseous…

Then, it came upon me. Tomato rasam. I remembered my mother would whip it up for all kinds of ills from fever and cold to irate digestion.So I thought - why not? After all, we had nothing to lose but some more vomit.

Soon, a tomato rasam was bubbling gently on one stove, while the other had rice cooking on it. I opted for the version without the tuar dal because dals are considered a tad difficult to digest. I spooned some hot rice onto a plate, anointed it with circles of ghee and squished it up a bit. Then I flooded the plate with tomato rasam; a steaming, delicate, pinkly red, slyly spicy sea in which the assorted flotsam of curry leaves, bits of cooked tomato, mustard seeds and tiny sequins of oil. I squished the rice a little more into the rasam.


And then I fed her.

The first mouthful was tense…but promising. She loved the taste. And it stayed down. After a few minutes, we tried a second – that stayed down too. Then another and another. Until the plate was empty. We waited, in case the tomato rasam had a delayed up-chuck mechanism. It didn’t. We clutched each other happily and I thought – maybe the tiny foetus-prawn got a taste of the rasam too.

And so, till the morning sickness ebbed, tomato rasam became our doughty antidote. And ever afterwards, after that tiny foetus-prawn was born as a beautiful boy and many, many, many afterwards after that, I’d make tomato rasam and we’d both slurp a cup and raise a toast to….

well, I think that we toasted to possible-ness.

Thursday, July 7, 2011



Aaj kal paani hai mehenga

Madhuri ke lehenga

Se bhi

Main nahin, zamana kehta hai…


Beti ka dahej sajaane gaya

Umr bhar kamaye


Provident Fund se


Toh bas mili

Do boond petrol ki

Theek hai, ladkewale bole

Baad mein jalaane ke kaam aayenge

Monday, June 27, 2011


When I first saw him, he was carefully folding a white crocheted skull cap that he must have just taken off his head. He had come from a nearby “gujri” to consider the possibility of buying the junk that I wanted to dispose off, vomited out by a freshly renovated house.

He was not more than 13 or 14 years old; a thin, brown boy, a little tall for his age, neatly and rather nattily dressed in black trousers and a matching stripped black and white t-shirt; too nattily (I thought) for someone who worked in a dirty “gujri”. He answered my questions quickly and confidently, but what really struck me about him was his bright, open face, with clear, brown eyes that reminded me of melted  jaggery. And a smile that flashed like lightning,  even when there was no reason for it to, revealing big, white teeth.

I asked him his name.

The smile flashed, brilliant in the freshly-rain-washed morning sunlight.

“Jameel” he said, shy-proudly

Preliminary negotiations began. Rates were flung up in the air as he switched effortlessly between talking to me in Kannada and then in “Hyderbadi” Hindi on a cellphone to consult his “higher up” at the shop. (Who, he later told me, was his chikkappa or father’s younger brother). I switched to Hindi too, wanting to show off my own multi-lingual-ness and when I did, the eyes glowed with approval and, if it was possible, the lightning-smile flashed a little whiter.

My hoard of junk must have looked promising because soon, an older boy arrived; his “bhai”, Jameel told me. Then, the haggling started in earnest, picking up pace as offers and  counter-offers were exchanged, accompanied by suitable expressions of horror and disbelieving scoffs of laughter while calls from the celphone kept the boss-chikkappa at GHQ fully in the know. Finally, after about 15 minutes of intense bargaining, things reached a crescendo when both parties pretended to walk away in disgust at the other’s this-is-my-final-offer-take-it-or-stuff-it. Then, magically, a deal was struck, apparently to everyone’s satisfaction. The smile went off like camera flashes at a celebrity press conference.

Now, the ‘iron’ had to be carted off to the gujri where the remaining transactions would take place. It was decided that since I didn’t know where the shop was, the older boy would cart away the junk while Jameel would be left behind to accompany me to gujri. He seemed more than happy to do so.

I went off to bathe and dress. When I emerged, rushing around looking for car keys, spectacles, purse etc.,I found Jameel was playing jack-in-the-box, popping up from this door and through that window, his curiosity getting the better of his shyness. I should have been irritated, but I couldn’t be. The smile wouldn’t let me. I opened a cupboard and found Jameel’s head had somehow snaked in from under my arm, peeping this way and that into it. Then it tilted up to look up at me and whisper in awe, “Ghar bahut bada hai, achcha hai.”

I smiled back weakly.

By now, it was time for the daily eleven-o’-clock-tea-n-biscuits. I offered Jameel some, the tea fortified by 2 extra spoons of sugar – heaped. Let me know if you need more sugar, I said.  He did – 2 more heaped spoons.

Finally, thus fed, watered and ready to face the world, we set off, driving to the gujri in my car, Jameel happily squirmed into the front seat beside me.

Naturally, conversation ensued.

Do you go to school, I asked.

I sensed a sudden dimming of wattage.

No, he said. I used to

I immediately launched into my oh-but-you-must-go-to-school lecture, but then stopped almost immediately.

You used to?


Till what class?

Class VIII

Then why did you stop? Your father made you? (Obviously, I thought, to add to the family income.)

Baap nahi hai.

Suddenly, inside the car there was a silence that comes after a very sudden, very loud sound – as if something had exploded. In those three words spoken in that small, quiet voice, it was as Jameel had yanked a plug and let out the sad, bewildered loneliness of a child that can’t understand how and why a parent left.

We sat quietly for a few minutes, shocked and very still. I couldn’t bear to ask him the details of what happened to his father. It didn’t matter and I didn’t need to know. The smile was the first to recover; I could sense it slowly, shakily struggling back. And I tried to match it.

Never mind, I said, forcing a cheery tone. Class VIII is not bad. You should start studying again. You can do it from home, is it not?


(Somehow, we both knew that this would probably never happen. But I babbled on.)

Anyway, you can read and write, yes? Kannada?






But that’s not enough, Jameel. You must learn at least one other language. Why don’t you join night school or what about….

The words came out is a  tumbling, angry rush and then stopped. By now, we had reached the gujri. Jameel muttered a response but I don’t remember what it was. The conversation died a natural death. We got out of the car. Jameel and another boy helped to haul my junk  into the shop and on to the weighing machine. The chikkappa-boss did the rest, all the while grumbling that I had struck too hard a bargain. I stood my ground, he did the math on a battered calculator and paid me the money. I took it, bade Jameel goodbye and drove back home.

But I could not forget him. And now I try to think why.

Yes, it was the smile which flashed so generously and without reason. And the eyes like melted jaggery. And yes, it was  the presence of a spirit so impossibly unspoilt and so irrepressibly happy.

But it was more – that it looked so hopeless for Jameel. What were the chances of a poor, semi-literate boy who was probably the main source of income for his family, to ever leave that dirty, rusty little gujri and move on to better things? He’d probably work there for the rest of his life or at best, manage to own a gujri himself. My Jameel deserved better.

Then, I thought – doomed?. Maybe Jameel is happy - and will continue to be happy. Maybe his uncle is a good man, a kind man who will see that his nephew and family will never want and will help him grow into a good, kind man as well. And maybe by a yardstick different to mine, he will have a good life and a contented one.

And who knows - even if he were to get an “education”, what would it be? “SSLC pass”? Or a useless degree from some correspondence course offered by some fly-by-night ‘school”? And would that really open doors to a better life? Or would it just make him aware of and  hanker for a life that till now he didn’t know existed?

Besides, who the hell was I to feel sorry for him? All that I had to offer Jameel were some stupid, meaningless  platitudes. Whereas Jameel, just by being who he was, reminded me that being happy is an inside thing, determined by you, not by your circumstance. Maybe Jameel would have felt sorry for me if he how little it took for me to feel disgruntled and unhappy.

For all of this, I can’t forget Jameel

And I can’t forget that small, quiet voice saying…

Baap nahi hai.

Saturday, March 12, 2011



I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Jawaharlal Nehru


The 3-day Vishwa Kannada Samelana ended yesterday in  Belgaum. I’m always cynical and suspicious about events like this because most of the time, they are badly-organised disasters,  where the real agenda is mainly self-aggrandizement and money-making.

Having said that, I was curious to know what the stated purpose of the Samelana was. And I found one, in the Hindu, according to which, the organizers were promoting this “rare and historical” event as a “celebration of 55 years of Kannada language and literature.”

Bhesh, bhesh.

But, as rousing a line as that may be and one that would probably make the heart of your average Kannada-Nadu-Makkala (and I count myself as one amongst those) burst with pride, I am a tad puzzled about that “55 years”.

Because even a few minutes of Googling and Wikipedia-ing will reveal that Kannada has existed as a language at least for the last 2000 years. (The Ashoka rock edict at Brahmagiri caves in Chitradurga suggests that Kannada may have existed even earlier - the 2nd or 3rd century BC).


Maybe the organizers of the aforementioned “rare and historical event” have never heard of Google or Wikipedia or the Internet.

Or, since that’s all “pre-old-Kannada” or Purva HaleKannada that probably is probably understood only about 4.36 musty scholars sitting in some moth-eaten library, perhaps it doesn’t really count as Kannada.


Let’s then fast forward 700-800 years to a period when the massive body of medieval Kannada literature nurtured by the patronage by the great Rashtrakuta, Chalukya and Hoysala dynasties came into existence. And includes the works of Adiakavi Pampa, the Vachana literature of Akka Mahadevi, Basavanna and Allama Prabhu. And so on and so forth.

No? Can’t be counted as Kannada literature?


May I then suggest that two hundred years or so of the dasa literature (starting from around the14th century) including the work of the likes of Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa and Vadirajathirta?

I know - nah.

But – and I know I’m one of those irritating people who just don’t get it and bugger off – here’s the thing.

Even if we were to ignore the roughly 1000 years of Kannada literature and stick to the literature of what is called “modern Kannada”, this itself is almost a100 years old.

K V Puttapa or “Kuvempu” as he is known, started writing poetry in the late 1920’s, by which time Shivaram Karanth had already written his first book and D.R Bendre his first collection of poems.

And by 1956, the year when, according to the organizers of namma Samelana, the glorious age of “55 years of Kananda literature and language” supposedly began, the Kannada language had been in existence for at least 1500 years and Kannada literature for a1000 of those years.

Never mind.

Maths has never been the strong point of us artsy-fartsy folk, so an error of a few1000 years “this-way-that-way” is understandable.

But there is something else that I want to say.

When Yeddyurappa invited the Infosys Chief Mentor, Narayana Murthy was to inaugurate the Samelana, there was a wave of protests and outrage among the Kannada activists and such-other-like because Mr. Murthy had recently made a statement that there should be more English-medium schools in Karnataka. (I’d like to add that the outrage is also because it’s now fashionable among politicians in Karnataka to regularly pepper their public appearances regularly demands for Kannada to be the medium of education, never mind if their own children are Delicately Bred Convent Maidens/Lads.)


Actually, all that Mr. Murthy was doing was merely reflecting the desperation of millions of Indians who see an education in English as a passport to Nirvana.

On July 16, 2004, 90 children in Kumbakonam were burnt to death when the thatched roof of the school caught fire and collapsed on them. Many of the children were students of the “English Medium” section of the school. Their parents were too poor to send them to better schools, but nevertheless dreamed of an “English educated” future for these children; prime pickings for the unscrupulous “schools” an like this one and thousands of others like it.

The horrific irony is that these children had been herded to the “Tamil Medium” section because the school inspectors were due and would sanction grant funds only for the “Tamil Medium” section, based on student strength.

So, “English-medium” schools are like the boy child. Everyone wants to have one.

And vernacular-medium schools are like the girl child. Everyone wants one – but only for other people.

But my question is this.

Why can’t we have our cake and eat it too? Why should it be either Mr. Murthy’s way or the way of the Kannada-only activists? Why should our children be forced to choose a language?

Let me explain.Travel through India, especially South India and around state borders and among the urban poor and you will find people who can’t even sign their name who fluently speak at least two languages. One their mother tongue, the other as far away from it as Outer Mongolia.

So why can’t  there be two languages of instruction in our education system?

Why is it not possible for the primary medium of instruction in our schools to be the mother tongue, but along with it, why can we not also teach our children English?

Narayana Murthy said that Kannada was the language of his emotions and that how it should be. We call it “mother tongue’ because its words are the very first words that we hear. It is the sound of our mother’s voice as we feed on her breast. It is how we first communicate pain and hunger and thirst and sleep. Imprinted in it is our identity, as much as it is in our DNA.

Look at almost every “developed” economy in Asia. The people first learn to speak, read and write in their own native tongue. And then, because they have to do business with the English speaking world, they also learn English. When the Japanese automotive giants started doing business with the Americans, they didn’t learn English, they went with English translators.

Many of these countries are cultural and ethnic melting pots - though perhaps not as complex as India-and so accommodating more than one language has never been a problem. Singapore has six official languages.

But why look at our neighbours? India’s greatest minds that shaped not only modern India but also the world were people who had their primary education in their mother tongue and later learnt English. Out of that long list, just one name is enough as an example.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. So, why can’t we be Kannada-speaking (or Tamil speaking or Marathi speaking or any-one-of-the 14-official-languages-2000-dialects-speaking) people who are also fluent in English? Kuvempu wrote his first poem in English. R.K Narayan was brought up by his grandmother who taught him, among other things Sanskrit literature. Tagore founded Shantiniketan, (Amartya Sen and Satayjit are among its alumni) and it is said that the great physicist, S. N. Bose fought for the introduction of Bengali as the medium of instruction and as Professor in Calcutta University in 1945, taught physics to the postgraduate students in Bengali. I am sure for each of these examples, there are hundreds more.

So, make our children bilingual.

But when I say that, it includes one important clause and that is how we define the word “language”.

In my penultimate year in school, I received one of the most precious gift of my life. And the woman who gave it to me was my English Literature teacher. Because she made me fall madly, deeply and irrevocably in love with the English language, a love has not faded to this day. She did this by making me taste its great literature and poetry, a taste that had me hooked forever. She made me understand that language is not just alphabets and a conglomeration of words but a living, breathing thing that through which we individually and collectively exist.

I wish I had such a teacher of Kannada Literature. Because that is how language should be taught – any language. Along with its history and literature and song and theatre and folklore. Sadly, today, language is the first causality of our education system. A tiny minority of us have access to “quality education” but in the process, we become the Engilliterate elite; linguistic exiles, disconnected from our roots. (And I am one of them.) Watch the average Hindi film award function and you will know what I mean.

For the rest, many will never have access to an “English medium” school. And thank God for that. Because the hundreds of thousands of “English-medium” institutions that have sprouted up all over our country will make sure that their children will be illiterate in two languages – English and their mother tongue. The local newspaper recently had ad from a top HR firm asking for people with fluency in the English language to conduct training workshops. One of them was to improve the quality of spoken and written English. The participants? New recruits to software companies – including Infosys – who came from “vernacular” backgrounds. The length of the workshop? 3 days!

 So, dear Mr. Yeddyurappa, I hear that the  next Samelana will take place after five years. I hope that’s enough time for you to figure out that Kannada and its literature has existed for a tad longer than 55 years. And that a theme park may quite be the thing you need to promote Kannada.

And Mr. Narayana Murthy, if you achieved what you achieved by – as you have said - going to a Kannada medium school till class 10, should not the education policy be aimed at improving the quality of education rather than at finding language scapegoats to blame?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Did Pinki Virani Ask Sister Agnes? The Importance of Being Aruna Shanbaug

Sister Agnes Thomas. Who has nursed Aruna Shanbaug since 1976.
Did Pink ask Matron Durga Mehta who cared for Aruna for 20 years before she retired from KEM Hospital.
Or Dr. Pradnya Pai, the former dean of KEM Hospital, who bought Aruna a transistor because Aruna loves music.
Or Sister Sukanda Rokhade. Or any of the hundreds of other nurses and doctors and other hospital staff of KEM Hospital, looked after Aruna for 37 years.
If the phrases "looked after" and "cared for" doesn't mean much to you, let me explain. Have you cleaned up someone's shit? Just once? And then washed them up?And have you mopped them up every time they urinate? Washed and bathed them? And constantly moved them around, making sure they are dry and clean, always watching out for the dreaded appearance of a bed sore? (Aruna has never had a single bed sore.) And have you fed them and touched them and talked to them even though you know they can't answer?
And have you done all this for someone who isn't your father or mother or son or daughter or sister or brother, not even a friend or accquaintance but just because it is your duty? And have you done this happily and willingly, even with love and affection?
Well, the medical staff of the KEM Hospital have done this for Aruna Shanbaug for 37 years, most of which time, Pinki Virani probably didn't even lift a bed pan for her.
So, if Aruna has a "friend", it is not Pinki Virani who has so conveniently appropriated the tag for herself, but this group of tireless, selfless people. And they are the ones who should - and can - tell if someone who makes it clear that she loves Bombay Duck curry and hates varan bhath; who cries when she's hungry or when she wets herself; who smiles when she hears bhajans and old Hindi film song and responds when you talk to her can be said to be in a "vegetative" state. Not Pinki Virani
And if anyone has the right at all to determine if another person should die, these are the only people who do. Aruna's "blood realtives" disappeared from her life a very long time ago. Nobody really knows why and without knowing those reasons, we are in no position to judge them. But it doesn't matter, because Aruna's real family at the KEM hospital never left, staying with her and supporting her for every single day of her life.
I am very proud of the Supreme Court of India, because what it took into account while passing the verdict rejecting the plea to end Aruna's life was the only testimony that mattered - that of Aruna's "family" that has cared for her these 37 long years.
Not Pinki Virani's.
According to whom, Aruna's bones are brittle, her wrists twisted inward. and she need to be fed and washed and cleaned." But how can Pinki conclude that being in such a miserable physical state automatically means that the person wants to die? And to arrive at the conclusion that Aruna "is in a permanent vegetative, her brain is virtually dead" and that she can't "express herself or communicate in any manner", did Pinki bother to spend a day with Aruna or even check with the people - all medically qualified - who have been her family these last 37 years?

So, as far as I am concerned, the last word on this has to be Sister Agnes':

“I think Pinki Virani had made her money. She should keep her mouth shut now."