Haiku for change

I recently had the opportunity to be part of a reflection process on the work we do as feminists, advocating for gender equality in development organisations. This was with an organisation called Gender at Work, an international knowledge network for gender equality; it’s a group I’ve been associated with since its founding in 2001, though I left them as Program Associate in 2007, when we moved to the Republic of Berkeley. It was such a joy being part of a space that incorporated the striving, thinking and doing of feminist praxis – with fabulous activists who embody that spirit – but it was also a joy (luckily) to reflect on where I am, both personally and professionally, these many years on. It must have something to do with – groan – the milestone of middle age/mid-evil-ness lurking round the corner. Still, at the end of the reflection, I wrote a haiku about change; I suppose it’s a birthday prezzie of sorts to myself.

Touched by the return,

I find my journey forward –

But some of me… stays.

For 2009: we refuse to be enemies?

What an annus horribilis 2008 was. Clinical depression of every kind: economic, political, personal. India was bombed repeatedly – and with precise geographical equity: north, south, east, west. I was in both Bangalore and Delhi over the summer, and missed the bombing of N block market by a couple of hours. Similar just-misses reported in from friends in Bombay, but the overall horror of it all goes far beyond close encounters of the worst kind. Between the escalation of rhetoric on the India-Pakistan front, and the egregious escalation of far more than rhetoric on the Israel-Palestine front, the new year feels shop-soiled and already ready for return. But since I have been accused of growing tendrils of Pollyanna-like optimism in the midst of utter despair, I leave you with an image from an India-Pakistan peace vigil I attended early last month, and a poem inspired by that, and this week’s protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza.


We refuse to be enemies.
We refuse to use your words, claim your politics,
accept your versions of history.

We will wear our anger like a shroud,
we will hold our defiance like a shield,
we will carry our compassion like a sword.

We refuse to be enemies.
We refuse to believe that hate is justified,
that peace is weak, that conflict is endless.

We will sing across the borders,
we will march across the divisions,
we will fly our peace like a flag.
We refuse to be enemies.

Celebrating Women’s Day with my family of feminists

So another Women’s Day rolls by. This year, this month, I think it fitting to celebrate the feminists in my life who are special to me, and who inspire me in different ways, at different moments of the year. The past month has been particularly significant for me in terms of the writing of two women in my family, and this post celebrates the sis-in-law, who is also friend, feminista and fun. Some time down the line I’ll write about the mother, who is a little difficult to describe in words, which is why I need more time to mull over her. chuckle.

Anindita won the Toto Funds The Arts (TFA) award for creative writing last month in Bangalore. Both awards in this section went to Bongs in Bengaluru, which is interesting enough in itself, but even more so, as Ani – and the rest of us – saw it, was that the award was presented by Amitav Ghosh. Now if that isn’t a matter for joint celebration and collective swooning, I don’t know what is. 🙂

Anindita’s poetry is archived at her poetry blog, but here’s a taste of her crisp craftsmanship. I chose this one because it speaks of a woman with a history and a future different from ours, of a woman who “bears the hollows in deep places”. Women’s Day is about celebration, but it is also about consciousness, that sharp poet’s eye for life – for a woman’s living – that can otherwise pass us by in a mundane flurry. Thank you for that watchfulness, and your own, bright, particular voice, Ani.

the migrant’s wife

when the wind comes down from the hills
and palm trees fling their leaves about
like Sufi saints stepped off the edge,

she lies on a mat on the floor,
arms out,

and listens to coconuts falling on the roof
like tough-shelled meteors.

in her, quiet,
is the cry of marauding elephants
grey. heavy. it flattens her.

Parvati, woman of the foothills,
woman of hard hands and bright teeth,
woman who endlessly waits.

woman whose waiting is a wound
that will not let skin
close over it

a wound full of tree, grass, rain
and the smell of mud

woman who bears the hollows in deep places
but feels herself break
with the slow burn, the stench in the night
of things growing old.

A prayer for 2008

A poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (translated by Agha Shahid Ali), from the site Indian Muslims, via Shivam Vij.


aaiye haath uThaayeN ham bhii
ham jinheN rasm-e-du’aa yaad nahiiN
ham jinheN soz-e-muhabbat ke sivaa
ko’ii but, ko’ii Khudaa yaad nahiiN

aaiye arz guzaareN ke nigaar-e-hastii
zehr-e-imroz meN shiiriini-e-fardaa bhar de
voh jinheN taab-garaaN-baarii-e-ayyaam nahiiN
un ki palkoN pe shab-o-roz ko halkaa kar de

jin kii aaNkhoN ko rukh-e-subh ka yaaraa bhii nahiiN
un kii raatoN meN ko’ii shamaa munavvar kar de
jin ke qadmoN ko kisii rah ka sahaara bhii nahiiN
un kii nazroN pe ko’ii raah ujaagar kar de

jinkaa diiN pairavi-e-kazbo-riyaa hai un ko
himmat-e-kufr mile, jurrat-e-tehqiiq mile
jin ke sar muntazir-e-tegh-e-jafaa haiN un ko
dast-e-qaatil ko jhaTak dene ki taufiiq mile

ishq ka sarr-e-nihaaN jaan tapaaN hai jis se
aaj iqraar kareN aur tapish miT jaaye
harf-e-haq dil meiN khaTakta hai jo kaNTe kii tarah
aaj izhaar kareN or khalish miT jaaye


Come, let us join our hands in prayer.
We, who can not remember the exact ritual
We, who, except the passion and fire of Love,
do not recall any god, remember no idol.

Let us beseech, that may the Divine Sketcher
mix a sweet future in the present’s poison
For those who can’t bear the burden of time,
the rolling of days on their souls, may He lighten

Those, whose eyes don’t have in their fate, the rosy cheek of dawn
may He set for them some flame alight.
For those, whose steps know no path
may He show their eyes some way in the night.

May those whose faith is following falsehood and pomp
have the courage to deny, the boldness to discover.
May those whose heads wait for the oppressors sword
have the ability to push off the hand of the executioner.

This secret of Love, which has put the soul on fire,
may we express it today and the burning be gone.
This word of Truth that pricks in the core of the heart,
may we say it today and the itching be gone.

Faiz, 14th August 1967

Janmadinnada Subhashagalu, Karnataka…

Or in other words, Happy Birthday, Karnataka, it’s been 50 years since you were born. What do I say to a place that’s been part of my childhood and my growing up, but also reason for my growing away? I love you, but that love is mixed with sadness, with disappointment and anger. If only you would be what most in this state (over 50 million of us) imagine you to be – a place of prosperity and joy, of pluralism and peace. Instead, so many of us live unimagined/unimaginable realities, nightmares rather than dreams.

Still, your people wish you a Happy Birthday. Because you might remember then – or at the very least, the people who claim to govern you might remember – that in your people, is your strength.

Here’s a poem I wrote for my friends (and extended family) in Raichur over ten years ago:

I found words in unexpected places
in Deodurg.
In a small stillness among the cattle feet
In sudden murmurings of water
(subdued but brave)
splintering through a vast yellowness.
I found strength
and a terrible humility
in the spurts of laughter
from tired-lined faces.
In the quietness of discovery
I found words
(and a funny sort of peace)
in Deodurg.

Ambassadors of Conscience

In today’s Times of India, an article on an innocent man who spent 11 years in jail for allegedly raping and murdering a six year old girl.

Kounder was released from the Yerawada prison on the directives of the Bombay High Court which took cognisance of a suicide note left by police inspector Iqbal Bargir in 2000 who said that Kounder was not guilty of the crime he was charged with.

The court order said that Kounder, who at the time of his arrest in 1995 was employed as an illiterate sweeper with the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation, was suspected to have been wrongly implicated in the crime.

And what if Kounder had been given capital punishment? Surely raping and murdering a six year old girl justifies it (after all, the last time a Manila rope was made at Buxar jail was in 2004, for Dhananjay Chatterjee)? The next time I rise in righteous anger against rapists and murderers and shout ‘off with their heads’ in a grotesque imitation of the Red Queen, I will have to remember Armogam Munnaswami Kounder. A poor man, from a family of casual labourers in Tamil Nadu. A family he had lost all contact with in the past eleven years. As I write this, he is on a train – somewhere between Pune and Vellore – wondering whether his wife and son will recognise him.

In the midst of the on/off line (in more ways than one) debate around the death penalty, I think Shivam said it simply and effectively. Dilip quotes Nandita Haksar, the civil rights activist representing Mohammed Afzal Guru:

Can the collective conscience of our people be satisfied if a fellow citizen is hanged without having a chance to defend himself? We have not even had a chance to hear Afzal’s story. Hanging Mohammad Afzal will only be a blot on our democracy.

However, Rahul Mahajan gets into the act, saying he will sit on dharna to register his protest against those seeking pardon for Afzal. Perhaps he feels the Delhi police will then help him get elected.

Collective conscience? I leave you with an excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s extraordinary poem, that asks from us the greatest and deepest responsibility of all time: to be an ambassador of conscience, beyond the platitudes, beyond the politics of expedience. Please read the whole poem on the Art for Amnesty site.

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway

At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather

The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared


I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself

The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen

He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved

Flower and Fire: a tribute to Kaifi Azmi


On Saturday, Ashwin and I went to watch ‘Kaifi Aur Main’ (Kaifi and I), Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar‘s tribute to Kaifi Azmi and Shaukat Kaifi, Shabana’s parents. Based on Shaukat’s book ‘Yaad Ki Raah Guzzar’ (Down Memory Lane) and Kaifi’s own poetry and interviews, it was a wonderful evening in memory of a strange and wonderful man.

Ashwin, unfortunately, found the Urdu too difficult, so all he could do was to watch my delight (hardly entertainment, I fear)… It did help that the performance was at the St John’s auditorium, round the corner from home – everything one does/not do in Bangalore these days is a locational hazard.

The evening had been billed as a theatrical presentation by IPTA Mumbai, but as Deepa Punjwani points out in her review of the performance in Mumbai, it was not quite theatre. It was quite a mehfil (particularly with Jaswinder Singh’s music), and certainly a tribute. Both to Kaifi and to Shaukat, interestingly. For instance, Shaukat remembers how she thought the feminist in Kaifi was speaking directly to her, when she first heard his poem ‘Aurat’ (Woman):

Rut badal daal agar falna foolana hai tujhe
Uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe
(Change the season to grow, to flourish
Wake up, my love, my soul; walk with me).

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