Carrying Eid from Middle East to Oxford of the East

Eid Food

[This article first appeared in Beyond The Underpass on September 25 2015]

Festivals are sewn in the fabric of our culture and religion. We celebrate them with the same community and at times even use it to bridge understanding between different ones. When moving places, we observe them either with a strong familiarity of the past, or sometimes with a hope to salvage whatever little remains of it.

To me, celebrating Eid in Dubai had a touch of placid monotony. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it as much as be content with it. The mandatory day off, exquisite sprawling mosques, people joining congregation prayers in large numbers, the quaint scent of freshly pressed traditional garments, and Biryani and sevaiya carefully crafted by the tireless hands of mother made Eid familiar and added to a reservoir of memory. It was something I would certainly long for after moving to Pune in India for my Undergraduate studies.

Some things were clearly amiss with my initial experience of Eid in India. There was little of the inexplicable peace of Ramadan that preceded Eid al Fitr (feast of breaking of the fast), and discussions of the Hajj pilgrimage that counted down to Eid Al Adha (the feast of sacrifice) were few. Our University followed a holiday printed on pre-decided calendars, completely missing the quintessential thrill of moon-sighting and last minute cliff hangers on whether or not Eid would be the next day. I remember writing an exam just an hour after the Eid prayer once. It was one of the toughest exams I had taken; after all it isn’t easy to be writing an Economics paper knowing that the opportunity cost of this moment would be a delicious feast with succulent meat and sugary treats. I tried to be content with what I had, an attitude not very different from that in Dubai.

By the end of third year, what lacked in Eid was filled with what I had never experienced from the comforts of Dubai. Never in my life did I find an audience more eager to know about my festivals than friends at college. Perhaps my cross-geography and cultural experience helped me with answers to thoughts that would otherwise be suspended in an air of misunderstandings and controversies. Attending classes during Eid meant that greetings were exchanged in person and not from couches over text messages. Moreover, festive meals were special with friends who may not have shared my faith, but were all united by the love for Biryani.

Pune gave me a glimpse of imagery that Eid’s essence stands for – a sense of communal affinity, little children dotting the streets with new wears and toys, and vendors selling perfume and kohl in little glass bottles. People of all ages and occupations thronged to the mosques and made-do with the little space available for synchronised prayers The inviting aroma of seekh kebabs on an open furnace immersed with the fragrance of perfume, giving you the best of both worlds. Quite a contrast to the casual urbanness and glitz of Dubai, Pune’s humble demonstration of a religious festival reminded me that Eid is not necessarily where the heart is, but where people co-exist and celebrate the little joys of life, where smiles and giggles are not entrapped in concrete walls, and where there’s a little lesson taught in harmony and joy.

This time when I removed my traditional garment for morning prayers in Dubai, I remembered it was the same as I had worn for my last Eid in Pune. Verily, lifestyles and our space of existence may change, but festivals are sewn in the fabric of culture, religion, and fond memories.

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Beyond Biryani – Humbling moments in Ramadan

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 16, 2015. Click here for the original version

Blessed are the people fasting in Dubai, and a special blessing is for the ones who spend Ramadan with family. It’s as if even the watch observes the holy month, the hours and minutes synchronized to reach the phase of dusk quicker than on regular months.

The Ramadan in the year 2011 was my first in India, without parents, and without a lot other things that otherwise made Ramadan “complete” in my regular Dubai life. The watch was not just going to adhere to a new time zone, it would cover a different experience from dawn to dusk – one that I would miss later.

While I was going to experience first of many things in India, my first Iftar at a mosque in Pune (a city where I received my undergraduate studies and a lot more), provides an endearing reflection on the holy month. Walking through unkempt bushes and an expansive area turned into a landfill for trash, I reached a building that could be passed on as a decrepit villa maintained with middle-class earnings. I was ushered to the floor above – I never wondered if Biryani tasted better on higher altitudes.

For starters, the mosque was a blatant contradiction to my idea of a prayer place I had grown accustomed to – big, spacious, endowed with cushioning carpet, even state-of-the-art and an endless flow of delicious food for Iftar. I compared mosques in Dubai and ranked them on where you got the best Biryani.

With no more than 6-7 large plates shared by men engrossed in supplication, the volunteers at the mosque hustled in and out of the room to fill the plates with snacks and fruits. The plate displayed an exciting array of colours, but colours don’t bring taste after all. I darted my eyes on other plates around, wondering if mine went biryani-less because I didn’t make it on time. Where was the real stuff?! There wasn’t any – looked like everyone was united before God, just before breaking the fast, even in the content of their plates.

As the call for breaking the fast went off, the men first ensured that the dates were equally divided amongst all and then tucked into their plates. The food received their reverence as they carefully peeled the fruits and ate it down to the seeds. The few fried snacks (pakoras) dotted the plate like rare stars in the solar system, spotted by all but touched only to be distributed equally. The plate was cleared of any edible residue – from stray fruit pieces to tiny bits of the crust of snacks that barely carry any flavour.

In stark contrast to my “regular” Iftar in Dubai, the whole eating session spanned barely for 5 minutes. No second servings, no passing around of the extra meat, drinks reserved to just water in a canister rather than a portfolio of water, juice, laban and Rooh Afza in sealed packaging as collectables for home.

Failing to satiate my gastronomical calling, i.e. Biryani, made me realise that the “real stuff” lay not in that which wasn’t in front of me, rather in what was happening around me at the moment. It was in the sharing of what was available and not in the hoarding of what was not. In less than 5 minutes, the men around the plate had fulfilled some of the prophetic traditions – eating from what’s near and ensuring that the neighbour has eaten as much as they did. While many of us in Dubai blatantly go against the spirit of Islam by wasting food, that mosque with few facilities managed food supply efficiently.

It’s worth taking a step back and evaluating how mosques work in India. Most, if not all, depend on philanthropic handouts and donations (through Sadaqah and Zakat) from the public to sponsor activities such as Iftar meals. It wouldn’t be difficult to guess that mosques have their challenges prioritising areas of expense and sponsoring meals only if the donations stream in at a healthy rate.

The holy month of Ramadan spans a mere 30 days, but its wisdom is timeless. There’s much to learn from it and its blessings are open to all. I for once want to learn the simplicity of a fruit amidst the sophistication of Biryani.

India’s Biggest Debt: Girl Education

Source: CNN.com

Source: CNN.com

In a country otherwise rife with discrimination and violence against women, and where the most popular currency dealt in is dowry, the CBSE result day is one marked with adulation for the girl student. Their consistent performance is like the greatest retaliation to society. They may have a tough time leaving home after the sun sets, but on every result day, I’m sure boys and their parents stay indoors after dawn staying that they’re celebrating with a house party. The reality is, they’re too shy celebrating their Munnu’s 65% while the Munni 2 roofs away – who was the center of their scorn for not getting married at the belated age of 17, schooled their Munnu with a 94%, in Science…Physics, Chemistry & Biology, while Munnu was happy with Botany without maths. He scored a full 34 marks out 100 in the Botany paper, with some tuition classes of course from the village nearby.

Girl child education is not just important for India, it’s also the only way our country can say sorry. India puts a price on women – 1) the opportunity cost in favours reserved for the boy in the family, and 2) the dowry a girl’s family is expected to pay. Dowry is many times an instant loan a father’s bank account is debited with when a girl is born.

If CBSE marks is your measurement for efficient use of resources, it’s very clear who’s using it optimally. For decades of under-performance of key infrastructure sectos, here’s a human capital that is displaying exemplary performance.

Education is a debt that we’ve withheld from paying back for far too long. Once paid off, assets will be created and liabilities settled. A well educated public is a well ruled one, a learned girl is a better understood one. It’s time India started understanding girls better, one class at a time.

Indian Education System’s New Minority – Boys

The recent declaration of 10th & 12 Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) results brought with it many things – adulation, celebration, and a phenomena I’ve been noticing since years before it was my turn to take these exams: girls outperforming boys.

There’s another observation – students have been doing exceedingly well….in pushing the cut-off rates for undergraduate universities higher. As scores across the board jump several points, it nudges forward the minimum percentage score that qualifies one for a prestigious university seat in India. Take this bizarre event in 2011, for instance, when the first cut-off list for some Delhi University (DU) colleges didn’t have a qualifying percentage,  rather it was a benchmark that Indian parents compare their children with – 100%.

This situation got many people worried, including those who trembled at the thought of not getting a college seat while warming the political one.

The Test Today

A combination of both observations stated above presents a queer situation today. Results being lopsided in favour of girls and the overall scores being on the higher side has not just pushed the cut-off rates, the rates are split at different levels for boys and girls. For a B.Com course in Christ University, the cutoffs are 87% for boys and 91% for girls for Karnataka students. Being from a state outside Karnataka comes with a premium, with cut-offs at 93% and 96% for boys and girls. In both cases, girls are winning…and losing at the same time.

It’s possible that this situation is not new, but I would certainly not have come across this cocktail observation without this post from teacher of Economics at my alma mater, and in many ways a mentor –

Pranita

Market Forces At Play

Ms. Pranita’s objection is fair, and we’ll return shortly to understand her strong views. The reason for the different cut-off points, on the other hand, can be discerned from an area this teacher excels in – Economics.  It is indeed the high scores and limited University seats that have created this acute condition. There’s a visible inflationary trend in marks – commensurate with a demand for good university education, but not enough intake capacity at the universities. The marks push the demand for the admission seats, whereby the supplier (read university) demands a higher percentage (read price) for the same. Since girls score higher than boys, the board has set a stricter limit for girls which, as we can observe above, is a good 3-4 percentage points higher.

(Sometimes the capacity limits are flouted. Over-capacity forces teachers to improvise, for instance by holding lectures in auditoriums & seminar halls, leading to stress on resources and infrastructure. )

This trend begs a question- are the rising scores a result a hard-work endured by students, or is it the CBSE boards’ testament to grant a better sense of achievement amongst the youth? Either way, what would frustrate an educationist like Ms. Pranita is not this dichotomy as much as the discriminatory limits for girls & boys. If these marks are the sole measurement for admission, why should there be a differential whereby boys are cushioned against an unfavourable result? In Ms. Pranita’s own probing words –

Why abolish merit-based admission policy (with the discriminatory cut-off levels)? Every year, the competition is getting tougher for the girls .. fault lies with the system which has not provided enough capacity.

Indeed, the fault does lie with the system, and the tougher competition for girls she talks of transcends mere numbers. A girl’s road to higher education in India is rife with potholes of prejudiced challenges – right from money, societal pressure, “belated” marriage concerns and many others that boys are seldom subject to. The last thing we need is limiting more girls from entering higher education because, well, they’re just too good. Girls don’t need this compliment (if I can dare speak for them, that is). They’re flattered, but no thanks.

Going The Minority Way

This situation has given rise to Indian education system’s latest minority in the form of boys. The issue of minorities in education brings the imagery of heated debates around “unfair advantages” associated with quotas. Indeed, we wouldn’t want the young men of our country to tread the way of a marginalised community that needs a helping hand. Their very access to a classroom, teachers and the exam room is an endowment that should be exploited to their advantage. For girls, basic access to education is far from an endowment, it’s an arduous journey in which they seem to be giving the boys a run for their dowry…err…I mean money. If anyone, it would be the girls who’d deserve a special treatment to salvage society’s timeless flagrant traditions & practices. But while girls are obviating the need for any ‘special treatment’ that comes with its own set of counter-productive results, the present normal is best shaped by championing equality.

Remarks For The Education Board

If the selection is rigorously merit-based, then let the selected be cream of the crop irrespective of their gender. If the diligence of a 96%er girl comes to fruition, the 95%er should not be denied the same fate merely to fill in more masculinity in the classroom. A level playing field would mean that boys are not just pitted against their laziness, distractions and lack of concern for academic excellence, but against the consistent lead of girls too.

Should this situation warrant a more thorough analysis, which I believe it does, the questions should delve deeper into the very essence of CBSE grading system. Where does the education system go with such arbitrary marking system? Flare points are in the exponential increase in the scores without a proportionate increase in well-resourced institutes. A glut in good scorers and a lack of accommodating institutes is an embarrassment for a country that prides on the Visva-Bharatis of yesteryears and the IITs of today.

The question that should arise after viewing the results, in the minds of boys and girls alike, should not only be “what next?” but also, “how far?”

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Half The Faith

The office building I once interned in houses state of the art serviced offices, bedecked with the functional yet chic elements to create an environment that makes work fun and easy. It’s tall height is dwarfed by the gigantic Burj Khalifa that stands bang opposite to it like its big daddy. My story, however, does not revolve around the times when we feel larger than life, rather when our vanity goes down with prostration to the giver of life.  The building has a prayer room just big enough for a few Muslims to practice their daily prayers on time and in between the office hours. It is during during these times that I always met Shafi-ul-Islam – a young, soft spoken man from Bangladesh.

He seldom prayed with the congregation and would studiously stand by the sides of the abolution (washing) area and wipe the water that had splashed onto the seat. To ensure that the washing area was clean before the next group of men used it, he would swipe the floor even if it meant that the men had to patiently wait. When the meticulous yet repetitive and seemingly boring ordeal was over, he always had time for a smile and words of greeting. Even as I finished praying and wore my shoes preparing to leave, I would always notice him stand in an alert position with the mop by his side in one hand as if he’d made it his friend. There was something awkward about him standing this way, smiling and waiting for me to leave every single time. I then realized that he waited for me to leave so that he could continue swiping the water from the floor without splashing it on me. I was once late for prayer and found only myself and him in the prayer hall. He was in the middle of his prayer and I remember thinking to myself that he must have finally arrived at his optimum-tidiness and separated from his mop for a few minutes.

There is great emphasis on maintaining cleanliness and keeping the prayer area free from impurities. This discipline is something that I noticed even in the mosques in India – a country not particularly reputed for its sanitation and waste-disposing facilities. This order and spruceness is not made possible by waving a magic wand, but by the efforts of the brush, the hands that guide it and the man who is determined to guide his hands to task. Some volunteer to the job occasionally, while others are hired to dedicate their services in helping the worshipers in attaining half the faith. It was sometimes embarrassing to come across these ‘cleaners’ in the mosques of India. Embarrassing because many of them were frail and old, rigorously scrubbing the floor while I left the mosque having prayed with the age and comfort on my side.

We live in a time when parents pass on values to their children and teachers impart morals in the guise of stories. We have at least have lived in moments well before our ‘mistakes’ and ‘experiences’ could get the sobriquet of being a teacher. Stories and scriptures that emphasized the importance of cleanliness, for instance, is something I remember from school days. My parents explained the significance of cleanliness in the Islamic faith and philosophy with the popular axiom – “cleanliness is half the faith.”

On another occasion, my teacher shared the story of a stained window that led to the viewer’s perception that her neighbour’s clothes on the clothesline were perpetually soiled. The folly does not always lie in one’s character, but the frame of reference, the window of perception that one uses to know and understand a fellow being. Dirt, in this story of the stained window, was not the literal impurity welcomed with soap and water, but rather it is an unlikely hero that rose from the dust to provide wisdom. It’s the philosophical process of scrubbing your attitude and cleansing it off the stains of judgement and prejudice.

What I chose to portray through my encounter with Shafi-ul-Islam is a path where literal cleanliness intersects with philosophical purity. A nexus where faith meets morals and values. Had there not been people who volunteer to get their hands dirty, practicing a religion which is particular about cleanliness would become a challenge and most worshipers would look only after themselves in their endeavour to reach the desired level of tidiness.

It is men like the one in my story who don’t just take on the onus of such community service, but also give us the opportunity to scrub our thoughts clean of ignorance and appreciate small things. It helps us to philosophically cleanse the tiny window through which we try to view a world which in actuality is much larger than our lives spent in vanity. Many times, we are too engrossed in the faith and forget to dedicate a thought or two to those who facilitate its practice.  If cleanliness is half the faith, then indeed, Shafi-ul-Islam is a humble, smiling face of that faith.

Shafi-ul-Islam – He smiles wider than in the picture

A Cake Called India

India Independence

India celebrated its 67 years of Independence from British colonialism on 15th August, 2014

Fresh out of the oven, my country India always leaves an aroma of stories that can be discussed and reflected upon forever. It is the most eclectically flavoured cake, with 1.2 billion candles poised on it with their part of the story. But alas, this cake is not the sweetest to bite into. Especially not in areas where 180 million candles  prop up, weak, and their flames dimmed to virtual darkness. It’s a cake wherein the cream carries the strongest flame, often dwarfing what remains of the weaker ones. Their clout gets them to re-ignite their wick in times of momentary despair, distracting the decorator from the others who live with flimsily for ages. It’s a cake, the crumbs of which are never picked up from the floor. Instead, birthday hats and ribbons join it to fight against the science of decomposition.

It’s a cake on which the candles multiply at a rate that rings ominous with the limited ingredients in it. Sadly, not all candles are placed to equal height. Some claim to have been from an elite packet and are entitled to a bigger space on the cake, not realising that their greed has been witnessed by other confectionery shops. It’s a cake which witnesses, from time to time, the extinguishing of many flames – just as they had been prolifically born. The reasons are too many to cite – some could not yield enough from the batter, some had accidentally tripped over the surface due to the chef’s carelessness.

The mantle of melancholy is borne by one certain group of candles who have known to the be producers of fresh candles. They are subservient to the whims of the chef, often losing their shine & dignity to stray pieces of wax in areas not well lit.  It’s a cake that carries a stigma of not being able to handle tiffs between two groups of candles for centuries. A certain group complains of the other carrying a shade of green in their flame, while they themselves have been accused of imposing their tinge of saffron on the rest. It’s a tussle that follows into the mouth of the consumer, often leaving a bad taste and needless to say – memories. History has seen some portions of the cake burnt, leaving a narrative of exclusion and intolerance.

But there’s a reason why the many candles have drawn the attention of every other confectionery delight to this one cake. It is a cake that has been baked with tender hands, fighting the oppression of imported ingredients that did not blend well with the cake mix. The light that some candles emanate with their skill and diligence is a topic hotly discussed in kitchens, restaurants and plates around the globe. Often, the signature dish of chefs is marked by candles from this cake – their positions high in the rank of importance. Despite the hypocrisy of many, there are stories of candles being united only by the belief in their ability to banish darkness and overlook trivial differences.

The candles that constitute the middle portion of the cake and also its core struggle to make ends meet, but their philosophies are often sweetened with emphasis on honesty, integrity, humility and wisdom. They remind the ones around them never to forget the first humble slice of cake they feasted on, the efforts that went into baking that part and the forks that felt short on the table. It is this middle portion that often reminds others not to be lured by the fluffiness on other sides, and be content with the chef decided for them. When pursuing their dream to immigrate to other cakes, the candles carry the crumbs of their parents and teachers and strive to shine brighter on cakes that host them.

The lives of some carry perpetual sacrifice, selflessly dedicating their years of shine for a sparkling future of the young ones. The candles enjoy some freedoms that others yearn to achieve, the ability to elect their chef lies in their genesis while others melt away dreaming of it.  This cake can also easily be regarded as the most celebratory one, offering itself to hundreds of festivals and moments of joy.

It’s a cake, the recipe of which is too convoluted for a passive observer, and too commanding for a cynic. It’s a recipe that stands as a special contribution to literature itself. It is a cake that has stood the test of time, temperature and the impulse of the mouths to feed.

It’s a cake where a few may get to be the cream, but every candle is an icing in one way or the other.

A very happy birthday, India. And let’s not cut this cake, for we have been splitting it in pieces for far too many years.

How One TV Show from Pakistan Trumps Its Indian Counterparts

Sanam Saeed and Fawad Khan play Kashaf and Zaroon in Zindagi Gulzar Hai

Disclaimers :

1 – This post is not to fan any Indo-Pak rivalry. Our politicians do a fine job at it, so let’s keep that task to them. Also, cricket. (I’m an Indian, by the way)

2 – This post is not to be belittle any art form. It is just my humble opinion on how this TV show from Pakistan is like fresh air amidst the stale offerings on TV

3 – I have watched quite a few TV drama shows, both from the sets of Pakistan and India. I watched Pakistani shows before the one I write about in this post

Zindagi Gulzar Hai is a soap opera from Pakistan. The story, though carries various narratives running simultaneously, revolves around an ambitious girl from the lower-middle class economic strata of Pakistani society – Kashaf Murtaza. Her struggle in a patriarchal society driven by capitalist elites is a recurrent motif of the show.

While the show (the description of which I have withheld to avoid spoilers) could draw similarities to some Indian TV shows, here are some reasons why Zindagi Gulzar Hai trumps all Indian drama shows :

1. Zindagi Gulzar Hai is 26 odd episodes long with each  episode running for a little over 40 minutes each. The reasons for such a short-lived show could be many – budget constraints could be one of them. But this means that the directors and writers have little time to dilly-dally with and have to come up with the best art of story telling within the short span. Indian TV shows have a tendency to stretch for years and in some hazardous cases, generations. This leads to the shows going on tangents that contribute nothing to the soul of the story and frustrate the audience.

2.   It is possible that Pakistan Television industry lacks technology and editing know-how to add visual impact. If that’s the case, there couldn’t be a better blessing in disguise. Zindagi Gulzar Hai is devoid of flashy editing, abnormal use of zoom-in lens and other such production and post-production treatment of scenes that exists in Indian television to give obscure outputs to the viewers (like a word echoing 3 times, a face flashed 4 times or the camera zeroing on an actor from 5  different angles.) This show relies heavily on story, script, dialogues, acting, scene environment, and other tools to communicate effectively with its audience and deliver a compelling story. This is what an average audience look for, and Indian television has rendered them confused at best, and visually impaired at worst.

3. Being a girl in a patriarchal society in this show gives us a more holistic understanding of the challenges. Unlike Indian shows, the perils that come with being a girl child are not reserved to dowry, marriage and some stray incidences of perverts creating mischief in the neighborhood. This show will teach you that it’s also about making the difficult choice of investing limited money in a girl child’s education, the uncertainty of one’s future, the extra-pressure faced without a father’s protection,  and then, of course, the challenges of trusting men after having gone through bad experiences.

4.  Kashaf reminds the Indian audience that falling in love is not a cost-less and a compulsively rosy affair. When you belong to a family struggling to buy ingredients for the next meal, cooking romance is not easy to consider. Indian shows, on the other hand, have a knack for propagating love stories that begin and flourish as easy as spreading a rumour on Whatsapp.

5. Expression of love in Zindagi Gulzar Hai does not involve featuring newly released Bollywood songs in its full length. It looks like demonstration of love in a TV serial in a conservative society like that of Pakistan makes it more exciting and genuine. There is heavy reliance on dialogues that try to poetically communicate  love, and it seems to embrace the characters and audience in a comforting manner and much less a cliche’d one. Expression of love in Indian TV shows these days falls flat due to an identity crisis – it’s not a cartoon show that can be devoid of it, nor is it a feature film that ought to give love & romance prominent screen time. What we get in between is a soup that leaves the taster confused.

6. Expression of poverty and economic struggle in the house of Kashaf Murtaza is not just arranging money to celebrate a festival or for dowry. Getting peeved over electricity bills, increasing prices of vegetables, making the difficult choice of when to prepare non-veg food are things that most middle class citizens of both Pakistan and India can relate to very well. Economically, there’s a lot that bothers a middle-class individual that Indian TV shows have failed to capture. The set up of a chawl with women lined up to collect water in buckets is just one aspect.  

7. Weddings in Indian TV shows go on for weeks as the central theme for all those episodes, much to a viewer’s irritation for utter wastage of time. In a show like Zindagi Gulzar Hai, weddings barely get screen time. This shows that the purpose for ‘weddings’ as a medium for sub-plot and story is not ‘how the wedding is’, rather – “what the weddings MEANS to the plot and characters.” Sometimes it is this crucial difference that helps a viewer continue watching the show or divorce from it.

8. The clash between Kashaf Murtaza and Zaroon Junaid gives a near realistic portrayal of the friction between lower and higher economic classes respectively. Unlike Indian TV shows, it isn’t just about a glittering Mercedes or Ray Ban shades from chor bazaar or the lack of it, it’s about apathetic attitudes towards each other’s socio-economic contexts and the lives that two seemingly different individuals live  – both in their minds and homes. Seldom does Zaroon Junaid’s wealth take the form of excess material display and the audience still manages to receive this comment on Pakistan society.

9. This show does not introduce a plethora of characters and roles, unlike Indian TV shows who have introductions, re-introductions, and re-re-introduction of unnecessary and irrelevant characters. The few characters in Zindagi Gulzar hai all have an important role to play in the wider scheme of the story which results in a capsule of 26 episodes with great acting.

10. It’s rare for the mother of a protagonist to give a performance as compelling as the protagonist, if not more. The mother of Kashaf in Zindagi Gulzar Hai makes the audience cringe when she sighs and laments at the difficulties she goes through in making ends meet. At the same time, like most ‘realistic’ mothers raising children, she tries her best (through acting and dialogues, not editing or background sound) to hide her emotions from their daughters lest she distressed them with her grief.

11. Lastly, since the show ends on a brief yet powerful run, the viewer who started watching the show ends with consuming the message from the programme in its full. Zindagi Gulzar Hai, in particular, is dotted with melancholic narratives of people struggling with money, family, society, and often with their own-selves. It’s conclusion, however, is marked with optimism and replaces the air of uncertainty and doubt that started with the show and followed throughout with that of  positive spirit and content.

“Go to the mango trees, the body of your daughter is there”

….the father of one of the victims was informed over phone by the police. The mango tree – the shade of which may have been a respite from sweltering heat, the fruits of which may have attracted little kids, and the leaves of which would fill the air with its herbal fragrance has become a symbol of death and misery.

The gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh has reminded us of the morbidity that lurks into the dark hearts and minds of some men in our country. Sadly, when such brutality is afflicted on one girl, it does not confine itself to that specific case. It sends shivers down the spine of every Indian girl, her mobility is hampered, the darkness in the streets she normally passes through become more pronounced, a random, but diligent stalker becomes a grave threat, and her parents become more proactive in regulating her movement. All these steps do not necessarily contribute to safety, they just close all avenues to women that are integral to a normal life.

Badaun

Sun sets behind the tree where the two girls were hung after being gang raped (Source – The Indian Express)

In the race for women in this country to elevate themselves above the conventional roles, in the constant struggle to avoid succumbing to the patriarchal authority, in the effort to avoid subservience to the lopsided societal structure, two lamps were extinguished and left to hang on a tree so that everyone watched and absorbed the darkness. I wonder what the final conversation of the girls may have been like- the words they may have spoken in normalcy before they were converted to agitated screams of pain as the men continued to destroy their innocence, moment by moment, movement by movement.

If the Nirbhaya case had faded away from our minds, the image of the the two girls suspended from the tree does more than just remind us of the evils of society. It has given us other cruel visuals to choose from. While Nirbhaya’s case was an open demonstration of sexual violence towards the Indian middle class – a section that she represented, the two girls hailed from a small district that may have had its share of unfortunate circumstances before this incident too.

Once again, the Indian populace is disgusted with the details in the background of this episode. It is a typical case of one despicable situation cascading into another, and this one eventually resulting in death. The two girls became easy targets of this crime because they had ventured into the fields in the shadow of  night to relieve themselves as sanitation facilities were unavailable around their settlement. To think about this, what we do incidentally on a daily basis turned out to be a fatal adventure for the innocent girls. In hindsight, the perpetrators would have been at ease too, as the custodians of law and order – the police – displayed their lackadaisical approach to the situations. A response so listless and apathetic, that the officials on duty now face suspension.

If the officials responsible for taking action against the criminals failed to convince people, how could the ones providing lip service from centuries enjoy from a distance? This was a lip service the politicians wished they never provided. When a journalist quizzed Akhilesh Yadav on the brutal episode and women safety in the state, the CM retorted back asking if she herself didn’t feel safe. To an agitated crowd that is forced to reconcile with sexual violence and threat to life, this comes off as morbidity with its own class. This represents a political system bereft of moral values that have guided the country for decades. And in the parlance of a less humble India, the response of the CM is plain rude, uncouth and insensitive. (That’s still very, very humble)

Before the politicians and law enforcement authorities even half heartedly set out to perform their duties, they need to undergo a mental revolution. Take a hiatus, if necessary, and understand  their countrymen from scratch. We know they run a diverse country, but their response to the public and journalists should not be an extension of their inability to control the situation. The human heart, especially in such vulnerable times, is often tender and grieved. When confronted with images of girls suspended from the trees like bloated branches, the least one can expect is kind consideration and warm words of reassurance. In their hearts they may be itching to go back to the confines of their plush houses and devour a customary feast, but when given the mandate to run a state and queried about a tragedy, leave the impression that they too are human beings, or had been at some point in time.

Though everyone hopes for a fast redressal of this case and harsh punishment befitting the act, I know that the criminals have outlived their crime. With their hideous actions that they may have managed to wrap up in minutes, they have plunged a family into deep despair, depriving them of days that could have been marked with the activities of the young girls. The girls could have been mentally assuring themselves of rising above challenges, developing ideas or simply indulging in innocent dreams, just the way we do at times while answering the nature’s call. But the aftermath for the girls was far from relief. The two families have been robbed off two mouths to feed each, but for a long time, even the little food at home will go untouched by the bereaved family.

However illuminating the sun may be in Uttar Pradesh, it will be gloomy in Badaun. And even more, under the shade of that mango tree.