Is travel writing dead?

Granta Magazine pursued this question with a clutch of writers in Issue 138 on JourneysIn the bookstore last week, I took to a corner and began pouring down the responses. It wasn’t driven by curiosity. Instead, it was to figure out if there is a general perception among the authors (many of whom are noted travel writers) that travel writing is saturated with banality and overdone representations of places which no longer remain far flung in these times.

Travel writing has meant making sense of events for me (as I wrote here earlier). It is to draw and distill an understanding out of the experiences that I have when I leave home. This understanding tends to be about the place as well as the self in the place, as I felt in a post on Paris.  At other points I tried dealing with coloniality and places in post-colonial times, as in Luang Prabang and Tranquebar. It is for these reasons that Granta’s question stood out for me.

Travel pieces have become dry and try hard to sound interesting, often exotic, in my experience. Whereas, unknown and exotic is no longer the position one can afford to write from in these times of cheap air travel and with a flood of medium through which pictures, videos and news from around the world reach us, all the time.

Two views on travel writing are widely held – that its emergence lies in colonial times with the proverbial white man going out into the vast unknown to bring the exotic and ‘other’ back to the readers in the West. The other, that much of the world today has been discovered, seen and hyper-connected for such writing to now find a place among readers interest. What then is the state of travel writing and its future? Pico Iyer maintains his extraordinary equilibrium of views and gets to the future of writing than waste time on critical analysis of the present. The ‘inward’ journey ‘into the realm of silence’ is where a writer should be venturing, he suggests. He makes a case for nuance and personal enquiry. Ending on a philosophical plane which he invariably climbs up from the real, in the course of his writing, he settles the question with this delightful sentence –

‘But that doesn’t mean that travel writing is dead; only that we sometimes are.’

One can see that the old, seasoned hands of travel writing are tempered in their views. Macfarlane reflects that travel writing ceased being a matter of originality. It is about form instead.

The best writers rose to the challenge by seeking not originality of destination, but originality of form.

On the other hand, there are two angry and critical responses to this question from Hoa Nguyen and Rana Dasgupta. And I am with them! They make a compelling case for a shift in the concerns of travel writing as a genre. Nguyen’s piece reminds me of my impressions of modern day Luang Prabang, which align with her sentiment about travelers from the West visiting places in the East –

Do we need more Westerners consuming their way across Vietnam, commenting on local dress, smiles, food and sharing tips on where to get the best deal on bespoke silk skirts?

There is a sense of frustration and anger in Nguyen’s response, and it is compelling. I am again with her when she lands a few punches to that irrelevant and disrespectful narrative of Western gaze, in these questions –

Instead of more consumerism – the buying of experiences, the accumulation og things, of eating the ‘other’ – perhaps writers should name their own environment. What is the shape of your watershed? How is your electricity produced? Where is your water treated?… Homing as a way to place oneself in a constellation of process and being.

It is a compelling argument, which gets to the heart of politics in travel writing which many choose to pretend ignorance too.

Travel writing of the known variety is certainly dead, in my opinion. A writer can no longer be ignorant of his own immediate environment and get to places thousands of miles away to report critically on life, people and societies as they exist in distant places. It only makes for vacuous writing.

Ian Jack’s writing as a foreign correspondent in India has held good example for me to learn from. I have often gone back to his anthology Mofussil Junction for his style and empathetic tone. In response to Granta’s question, I think his thought is laden with wit and insight –

It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironised, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way.

And I completely agree!

It has been an insightful read – these responses to a question as commonplace as state of a genre of writing.

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How To: not finish a marathon

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Ladakh Marathon, 2017, Leh.

Wilson Kipsang dropped out of Berlin Marathon today.  He fell out of leading pack’s pace and at 30th km he stopped, as reported. Kipsang’s reasons are best known to him. One can only guess what might have been going on in this ace runner’s mind as he saw himself falling out of the pack. While that is the world of elite runners, the dispiriting effect of not finishing is identifiable. Reading about him makes me revisit my state of mind two Sundays back from today. Failure was write large on my face as I hobbled back to room.

At Ladakh Marathon 2017, I did not finish the course. At 34th kilometer the deepest of reserves within me felt depleted beyond measure.  In the two kilometers from 32nd to 34th, I was stripped of all the physical and mental drive to take on the last 8 kilometers to finish line. Even as I try to recollect, I do not know what gave up first -mind or body. It felt impossible to gather myself at 34th.

Perhaps, the little changes before and during this run took it away from me. I am trying to list down all that shouldn’t have been done. First, I was trying out new shoes, which I thought I have broken-in into, with one week in Nepal and three weeks on the cycle ride to Leh. May be that wasn’t enough. Right shoe of the pair pressed hard on the toe nail and by the 30th right toe swelled up. A month old pair of shoes to run a marathon – big mistake!

I was confident of finishing the run (in my mind, finishing was never a concern) and perhaps with a decent time as I walked up to the start line. September morning in Leh seemed less cold to have a good run in just shorts and t-shirt. Things went well until the 20th kilometer. I tend to not drink or eat anything in the first half of a marathon. I stuck to it. May be, I should have eaten something, considering my nutrition was completely off-tune in the previous week when I cycled up to Leh from Manali.

Second mistake: knowing my physical limits. My legs were fatigued from the ride, which was felt only when I got into the thick of the marathon and pushed harder. Thighs cramped unusually. In all these years of running, I have never had this situation. Past 22nd kilometer I started slowing down. However, it still felt good to go.

The next 10 rolled by, in my intent to make it a sub-4 hour finish. Here comes the third mistake – trying to push hard recklessly, all for a finish time. This pursuit from the vantage of my desk tonight looks foolish. I exhausted myself in the next 8 kilometers to 30. I can see it clearly. This exhaustion led to injuring my foot on the other side of 30. At 32nd, I was hanging down from the shoulders, earth bound. The state was unlike any I have ever experienced during a run. Dejection, disorientation and a body shorn of its vigour and vitality. Fourth mistake came soon enough in the form of an ‘energy drink’. While I do not recall the brand, it sure was not meant for me. I shouldn’t have tried it. I could feel it inside me all along and carried an extremely disagreeable feel.

Lastly, a messed up state of mind. The previous two mornings had been very grim due to personal reasons. That flowed on to the marathon morning. All is not lost when a person is physically drained. It is when the mind checks out. I firmly believe it now. Years back, I was probably in a more painful situation in Auroville marathon, physically. Yet, I was mentally strong and willed hard to see the finish line. Leh’s morning was different. My spirit, as I see now, was too low. And this was invisible, unfelt and lurking, only to get me when I needed it to fill my sails up and carry me along. It hasn’t helped me any bit to run a marathon with personal troubles raging hard in life.

I do not know how to process my failure to complete this marathon. To be honest, it got me. I hailed a support vehicle at 34th and go to the other side of finish line. I saw people smiling and cheering runners. There were friends cheering each other, congratulating each other, shaking hands, hugging and taking photos, feeling happy with their effort and finish. I steered through all of that indifferently, to find a cab back to room. Time turned into a tunnel from the time I got on to the support vehicle and until I stood under the shower. I felt miserable and defeated. This was for another, perhaps harder realization – that I lacked the ability to take a failure well! I realize now that even the most terrible of failures in school, college or in career wouldn’t have taught me to take a failure well, which running has.

Rest of the day went in silence. Other mates at the guesthouse asked me to join them in playing cards. I learnt playing a new card game – ‘carbo’ that evening. Later, we had dinner together, seven of us. In the silence of Leh’s night, I readied my cycle again and packed the bags for a very early start to the bus station and three days of drive down to Delhi.

Ladakh marathon has sent me back with a tempered confidence. The predictability and comfortable surety of runs (that I always participated in) has been torn apart. As though, it is sending me away to know myself better and if willing to take unpredictability of life well, then to return again.

 

 

Outside familiar & routine: A cycle ride

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This is about a week spent cycling to Leh from Manali, alone. This distance of 480 kilometers has sent me home with a few lessons. Some obvious – about physical capability, perseverance and comfort with uncertain weather, and some less obvious that I hope to probe with this act of writing. Besides, every journey works on the traveler at many levels. Two for me are at the inner (about the self) and for the want of a better word, outer (the worldview). The cycle ride was a chisel, working slowly on both these parts of me as the journey progressed. The process has been pleasure and pain in parts, just as the terrain itself.

The closest one comes to ‘living in the moment’ is perhaps when the immediate environment poses itself as a challenge to one’s physical ability to negotiate it. The more diminished the physical state is, more sharply focused is the person in trying to get past that moment, without thinking  about anything else. The days spent cycling have been my experience trying to live in the moment – completely occupied with the present and nothing else. In urban life, I see no other way, wherein, I can pull the plug on all the thoughts (and concerns?) about people, events, plans and pursuits that occupy daily life. And do this, without sitting in a dark room or a leafy retreat, eyes shut in meditation. Cycling in the Himalayas was an experience in being in the moment. It was about days lived discrete. No carry over and no drawing from either. Each day squared off as it ended on the highway from Manali to Leh. The ride was about a couple of days lived in solitude, trying to get closer to the sense of being alone that has often been an uncomfortable though in our regular lives. It was a conscious thought to ride alone, self-supported for the requirements of the seven day journey that I was about to make over high mountains and into the Leh.

Dinesen meant to say this about writing – (write a little everyday) ‘without hope and without despair’ and I took that to cycling. On this ride I wanted to ride a little everyday, without hope and without despair.  Although, it turned out to be quite different in the following days of the ride. The weather left a lot to despair. My own thoughts about life and its ongoing affairs, day after day, on those mountain passes, blew like cold headwinds of the passes. Thoughts troubled me. The act of thinking as well. The attempt was to get past the day’s climbs and the distance, to the next shelter on this highway.

First three days were constant rain and wind. As one got higher up from Manali towards Rohtang Pass, the rain increased. First night I slept with a resolve to roll back down to Manali and abandon the ride if it continues to rain. Following morning, I hung out with boys who worked in the clutch of dhabas at Marhi, from Bihar and Jharkhand, waiting for rain to stop and sun to show up. Neither happened. Instead, their repeated questions about whether I head up or down, made me try the first few kilometers towards the pass. Thirty minutes into the ride, the rain picked-up further, and so did the spirit to face it. With that began the uncertain second day of the ride, riding in rain up to Rohtang and beyond it, riding for six hours. Where did that will to continue on that morning come from? I do not know!

Second day ended in Sissu, a small village in Lahaul valley. I am given a room in a homestay as I stood knocking on a door, soaked in rain with a cycle. I change into the only other spare set of clothes and stand by the window looking at the mountain range I pedaled out from all day and to the sound of a high waterfall. Both intimidated me. Slept that night again with a decision to head back, if the rain doesn’t stop. By late night, that decision seemed to be weakening as I sat writing in my notebook in comfort of the house, warm with people of the house and kids completing their homework by the hearth. It continued to rain the next morning, affirming what I heard at Sissu’s tea shop and grocery store, with people discussing the unusual weather this year.  I have believed that no two days are same on the road. Sure enough I thought, as I got out in the rain again and road descended to valley’s floor and followed along the river until Tandi, a village by the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river. Chandra and Bhaga – lovers, who as the story goes, take a walk around the holy mountains of Lahaul valley, fall in love and embrace where the river meets. The river further down the course gets a new name, Chenab.

Over a small bridge, I continued in the warm morning’s sunlight towards Keylong. An easy ride along the gently rising and sloping valley floor. Third day of the ride and the plan to abandon it was still lurking in the head. Keylong could offer an easier exit with the cycle, on the following day’s bus to Manali, I thought. By late afternoon, I rode into Keylong, having eaten two small snickers bars and nothing else. It wasn’t the ride’s physical demand. I felt it then as I see it now. It was the state of mind. The confusion, the pointlessness of it and the dissatisfaction of the familiar and routine life back in Bangalore. Before I can even think of changing something, I wanted to know whats going on. Keylong passed by in these thoughts. Jispa was up ahead on the road and it didn’t look like much effort to break the journey there. A lone man in one of the restaurants plainly explains that he can’t serve food as it isn’t convenient for him to cook for one person. He suggested that I ride down four kilometers further to Darcha.

The slow chisel of journey worked – I was pushed to Darcha, when instead I wanted to end the day much before that. Darcha was six kilometers ahead. A busy stretch of restaurant-dhabas, and a preferred stop on the highway for lunch by every passing vehicle on this highway, except the bikers who are cared for and served by Jispa’s luxury tents by the riverside. After patiently watching me finish lunch, the dhaba owner insists that I take the climb above and ride twenty kilometers more to Patseo or beyond, which might be closer to the next mountain pass of Baralach La. I didn’t want to. He was happy offering a bed in the dhaba for the night, but insisted that I do, after describing the road and conditions until next stop. Darcha’s settlement sat by the river which flowed through the valley floor. The way to north of Darcha is by negotiating the shadowing mountain with a climb of over 600 meters. What I lacked by the way of team, people along the way filled it. They insisted and I got out. Who are these peple? And why do they do this? Every time! Soon enough it began raining as I got on the ascent to Patseo. However, I needed to keep the kind man’s expectations and live up to his words ‘you are riding strong’. These were the first four days of the ride, which took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure of riding in such a weather. All the nights I nursed the intent to abandon. All of the following mornings, I got back on the saddle, pedaling further away from point of start.

Reading about wayfarers and their beliefs, Tibetans say that obstacles in a hard journey, such as hailstones, wind, and unrelenting rains, are the work of demons, anxious to test the sincerity of the pilgrims and eliminate the faint hearted among them. Matthissen wrote about it in The Snow Leopard. In retrospect, days of rain, wind and cold didn’t seem much of a test. Being with oneself was. The silence of long distance, isolation of landscapes and being in one’s own mind were greater tests. Slowest thing in the landscape was the bicycle, making one take only small bits of the distance each day. The patience that it brings along feels transformational after getting to the other side of this journey.

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At Pang, the morning felt as though I was home. The landscape was changing fast. Changthang plateau lay ahead. A five kilometer climb and one would get a straight, ramp of a road on this high altitude space – Moreh Plains. On this morning, there was no one to be seen for several kilometers, except the oil tankers and the herders – yaks and goats. The landscape was dotted with hundreds of yaks and goats making their way in the spaces between the mountains, foraging in the silence of this space. Grim mood of the past days dissolved, much like the snow cover on mountain tops that turned water after the sun came up in Sarchu, on an earlier morning.

A slow ride, at the pace of a bicycle makes for a strikingly different experience on this highway. For one, the rider comes close enough to hundreds of those faces that toil away in this cold, inhospitable region, constructing roads. Under the hoods of the jackets are faces of teenage boys and men in early twenties, with skin cracked in cold wind. Some of them appeared strikingly young to undertake this hard labour. In the many accounts of rides and travel on this road, I do not recall reading about these workers, almost clawing away the hill sides, as far as the requirement of the road takes them. From working on very high passes to dark and cold gorges, these workers from Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and other poverty stricken states, contribute an unimaginable amount of hard labour. On broken stretches of the road, we look at each other, as though a video tape set on slow-motion, as they take a moment to look up. The hammers continue to pound the hill sides, day after day, as long as the weather allows them to and India’s strategic interests requires them to.

The highest pass on the route – Tanglang La, lay ahead the sixth day. I can now affirm that in a good spirit and mental state no pass is high enough to scale. The defeatist spirit of first few days no longer prevailed. I was beyond the point of no return. Although, the delirium experienced in cycling up to this pass felt like I was a full two steps beyond my physical ability. Not sure of my control on the cycle, I rode closer to the right side to avoid rolling off the road into the valley unconsciously. Three hours of inching closer to the pass, the pass appeared plainly in sight and soon enough under the feet. I stood there in the cold wind, snow flakes falling on the jacket, trying to soak it in – the arrival at this place. However, it felt plain. Only a small realization about time and effort. Make the effort, however small and given enough time, one is over the highest of the passes.

From there on to Leh was a massive incline that I was thrilled to experience. One barrels down the road as though a darting falcon. I remembered with a wide grin, what a tour guide at Sissu said on the rainy evening when I stood dejected looking at the map. He mentioned that Tanglang La is as far as I need to make an effort and that after that it is no longer a man. It is a bullet shot from the pass to Leh. Almost 50 kilometers of blissful downhill ride awaits a cyclist from Tanglang La pass. It reminded me of the thrill coming down from Nandi Hill long years back, in Bangalore.

As I try to figure how to close this piece, I flip through my notebook for entries from every day of the ride. I notice that the pages only speak about terrain, weather, landscapes, people, hosts at several places and the sense of loneliness, solitude, intimidation experienced as well as the occasions when I sat eyes brimming over, trying to figure the road ahead through those teary eyes. None of these have been familiar and routine for me.

Arriving in Leh, the following day I shopped for books. I was hungry for words. Matthissen’s The Snow Leopard is perhaps what life wanted to throw at me. It is an account of his journey into Nepal’s Dolpo region with biologist George Shaller. What are the odds that he speaks of his inner journey to me, as soon as I finish mine. In a story written by a traveler in medieval era that he mentions, the concluding line is the following and which fits my little journey too –

‘One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.’

 

 

How to Get Away with Any Kind of Reporting in India

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What follows is a response, partly visceral, to NYT’s piece How To Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India by its India bureau chief Ellen Barry, this week.

It isn’t a personal attack on Ellen Barry. The piece is very well written and would hold for me as a sample of impactful writing,  It is also not meant to be an emotive response charged with nationalistic pride, which is likely to condemn such critical reports about law and order, enforcement of law etc in India. Instead, this is about trying to understand power dynamics that come into affect when foreign correspondents take liberty to report in such critical undertone selectively and from only certain parts of the world. Where, one needs to ask, does this tone disappear when the same media outfits report from their own countries or from economic superpowers like the United States. Any chance that what happened in Charlottesville could have been reported in the same seemingly cold detail, daring and assertive in tone as the piece from India? My guess is – no! Of course, NYT wouldn’t let that get through when it is goes against powerful governments or when it steps on any of its benefactor’s feet (for instance, does anyone recall any criticism about billionaire Carlos Slim and majority stakeholder in NYT, published by NYT?).  If they did report with uniform and impartial standards, Charlottesville event would look something like this. To clarify again, focus of this piece is international power relationships and role of media within the web of these relationships. It is not us vs. them even in the faintest implication.

This applies to foreign correspondents in India, particularly from influential media houses based in US and Europe, who live and operate under the impression that they represent free, fair and independent press and its values. This is self-delusion. Self-righteous groups of foreign correspondent tend to suffer this as a chronic ailment. If this was indeed true about their conduct, headline as this – How To Get Away With Murder in Small-Town Indiaor similar in its provocativeness should have emerged from several other parts of the world where the correspondent herself or their newspaper’s bureau is working from. Why, in this case didn’t we see such an allegedly bold reporting from Moscow when Ellen Barry was a correspondent there? Is it because there were no murders in small-town Russia? It would be laughable to suggest that.

It was interesting to see Barry’s tweet being shared so many times and Indian journalists hailing that as a fine piece of reporting from India. I ask them, will they ever be able to write a piece like this as a correspondent anywhere in Western Europe or US?

In short, a part of my argument is similar to what Barry reports as a quote from a conversation with the police constable, in the article –

“This is the trick that foreign countries like yours are playing,” he said. “You will write something. People will read what you write, and say, ‘This country will progress only after 100 years.’”

It must be acknowledged that Barry reports this in fairness. Also, that this is what Barry herself might end up doing even with all her good intentions. With NYT’s readership, does the author have any idea how this piece shapes opinion about India for its readers outside of the country, when, the same or much heinous acts are being committed in several different societies across the word, which, are not being reported for a variety of reasons. The erasure of such reports from other parts is what I allege as being unfair. Some journalists may pounce as soon as this argument is made, by arguing that a journalist’s job is to report stories and that is that. In my opinion, the job is half-done (and should be condemned), if it conveniently maintains silence when the same happens elsewhere in the world. What then, the media presents is an incomplete view of the world, to put it mildly.

Reading Barry’s piece doesn’t hurt my pride in being Indian. It frustrates me to see this variety of reporting only from a world where the correspondents can get away with it! An average citizen like the police constable that Barry speaks to, can see these dynamics, and understand them well too. Don’t take that for him being naive enough to tell you the truth, only because of your exceptional investigative journalism skills.

On a slightly different note, Binyawanga’s stunning piece How to Write About Africa comes to mind. Makes a remarkable read for what writing on Africa looks like and native authors’ view on it.

A four year story

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Sumavanam School

Madanapalle

This is a relationship that began with a term paper and turned into what seems to be a life long association with a duo who have helped an ignorant mind understand the fine print that life sometimes comes with and which some fail to grasp. Rode down to meet a couple who founded a school for kids in villages around Madanapalle over thirty five years back. The school shut down this year – no teachers to be had in this village. The city-dwelling find it too distant and remote to live on this farm cum school. The village-dwelling aren’t quite making it to higher education. So that rings in the closure.

Meanwhile, the couple lives on, amidst their farm, a dog, shut classrooms, late May rains and a stunning landscape. We share lunch, plenty of conversations and memories of years gone by. Every little instance from their past comes with a hook into the present. Their lives run like a constant background process in my head to score my life against and sometimes compare if I will ever experience the satisfaction and the sense of compose that comes from having lived for an idea. On that noon in Sumavanam I could only admire and feel a bit struck by the life these two chose to live and the sense of quiet that prevails in their minds and on the farm.

Far from it, I continue to dwell in my chaos and clutter.

Pace of things around

 

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In the distant horizon was a bullock-cart rolling away. On the straight road this distance was over a kilometer. Pace was on my mind this evening – of things around, of me running and of Scott’s during Sparthathlon. I was trying to think what a pace of 7 min per mile takes after having done 130 miles of a 160 mile race. It is clearly beyond me at the moment.

A flock of parrots sped past flying low. I counted ten of them. It was a marvelous site when in their high speed flight the group which flew in formation of an arrow head, split every so swiftly, negotiating a neem tree ahead on their flight path. Then they grouped as easily, all the while maintaining their pace. What a sight, it was!

By this time I was closing in on the bullock cart. Almost all the men driving these carts are old. There is hardly a young man or woman that I have seen driving bullock carts in these several years that I have seen them in different regions. Is it that a cart’s pace can no longer hold the young? Almost all of them are on some form of automobile. Perhaps, only the old timers can be at ease and be okay to move at that pace of bullock-carts. By now, I had crossed the cart which was about a kilometer ahead of me on the straight road. In the next few minutes I cross two more of them.

I thought of my slowed down Grandpa because this week they tried a new bone implant in his leg and removed it, for his bones have gone too weak for this. A railway man, who once used to walk down the length of entire freight rakes of fifty-four wagons, everyday. At ninety, he is slowed such that several minutes pass before he manages to muster strength to put one foot ahead of the other. Life has slowed down phenomenally for him. These days, his children and grandchildren often run out of patience with his pace.

On the return lap, a high speed train sped through the landscape knifing that space where the green of fields met the blue of horizon. Again a thrilling sight, unlike any other in the world. May be I am a biased to these Indian landscapes. But even those Dutch trains, rolling across the scenic landscapes of Harlem, on ward to Rotterdam, didn’t  appear as lovely. There was something sterile about them. May be it is the thrill of locomotive horn from a distance and the anticipation that it builds up on the level crossings where people and traffic wait for the speeding train.

Different paces were noted in a magnified sense on this evening’s run. Paces registered with a heightened sense of awareness almost anew.

And then, I began fretting over Ladakh Marathon next month where I might not be able to sustain any respectable pace at 4500 meter altitude. Four weeks to go. Hope I manage to put in enough number of runs before that. To Ladakh this season!

Workers of the world can’t unite: May Day in neo-liberal times

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May Day Rally, Town Hall, Bengaluru. 2017.

Walking with workers on May Day morning was a humbling experience. Workers’ unions from various establishments across the state showed up for May Day rally at the Town Hall yesterday. I was also filling up the last of my field trips for masters’ thesis. So, this also comes from my field notes. The roads in all directions from Town Hall were a stream of red. While it was heartening to see workers showing up in such numbers, it was also distressing to see that a key driver of unionization among workers across jobs like marketing and distribution, automobile manufacturing, garment manufacturing, cleaning and garbage collection and a whole range of other miscellaneous ones, is the fact that they find their situations too precarious in the emerging economic context. The unions in this year’s May Day were not the traditional unions of pre-1990s which drew mainly from skilled, industrial workers in long term and secure jobs, who needed to fight primarily for wages.

This May Day was of the precariat – a category of workers in low wage jobs with no social security and job security. They are retained only on employment contracts and will never be valued by the employers as workers who are worth investing in, over long term. These workers are the former proletariat with an added precariousness to their lives owing to the jobs that they find themselves in. This is the precariat that Guy Standing refers to in his work – The Precariat: The Nww Dangerous Class.

In a 2014 paper – The Precariat and Class Struggle, he writes –

The world economy is in the midst of a Global Transformation that is producing a new global class structure. A new mass class is emerging – the precariat – characterised by chronic uncertainty and insecurity. Although the precariat is still a class-in-the-making, divided within itself, its elements are united in rejecting old mainstream political traditions.

It was the precariat in action yesterday at Town Hall. Nothing significant is likely to change in their lives if they continue to organize in manner and style of the old unions. The call for action isn’t simple anymore. Neither the workers of the world can unite nor will the tripartite of state – market – trade union will ever be respected as earlier. I was glad to be a part of the march filled with sloganeering, music and dance. However, here are my concerns because I know that the music and dance mood would hardly take time to turn into violent protests and lockouts in these times of arbitrary policy making by the state which tends to favour businesses:

  1. Workers of the world can’t unite anymore because the global solidarity that the traditional unions called for has been rendered unattainable by effects of globalization which relocates shop floors to cheap labour markets, thus depriving one group of workers and providing another with work. Case in point – Detroit’s death in the US and rise of Asian car manufacturing hubs. There is a reason why Volvo opened a large manufacturing unit outside Bengaluru and not in any of the pretty settings in Scandinavia. So how do workers feel for each other when they end up as losers and winners?
  2. Resurgence of radical nationalism seems evident in several parts of the world – India, US, Germany and France among major economies. Countries like Hungary have gone a little further with their attitude towards immigrants. This will prevent any transnational solidarity to emerge among workers.
  3. Complex state-business relationships in free-market economies have rendered the place of unions irrelevant, if the unions are still articulating their concerns and fights in the language of the 1960s. States will pander up to businesses which bring in investments. Workers are no longer indispensable, should be known wide and across the segment. Indian unions moreover do not seem to have taken lessons from the devastating 1982 textile mills strike led by Datta Samant. What was the end result? Why does this question upset union leaders? This famous strike with over 300,000 workers participating in it which assumed that workers would stand their ground (owing to the poor choice of their leader Samant) and the state would bend, wiped out textile industry from Mumbai!

Returning to Standing, only because it seems a useful analysis of the situation, suggests what might the transformation of the precariat’s situation need –

To become a transformative class, however, the precariat needs to move beyond the primitive rebel stage manifested in 2011 and become enough of a class-for-itself to be a power for change. This will involve a struggle for redistribution of the key assets needed for a good life in a good society in the twenty-first century –not the “means of production”, but socioeconomic security, control of time, quality space, knowledge (or education), financial knowledge and financial capital.

I find Standing’s views a reasonable direction that workers in the neo-liberal times need to reorient their thinking in. In my work, I have been studying the contract workers who sweep, collect garbage and clean the city for Bengaluru’s municipal corporation. These workers are referred to as porakarmika in Kannada. Their union was formed three years back and in my analysis I find that this is the only effective grievance redressal agency that they have to plead their demands to the corporation. There are over ten thousand registered members. Every time I participate in their protests for wage hikes and workplace conditions, I am struck by the lack of thought in their demand for regularization – that they should be made permanent employees. In these times, with neo-liberal thought and new institutional management having taken firm ideological root in the government imagination, there is no hope for contract system to be discontinued. The state will increasingly deliver more services through contractors. The workers and their leaders seem to have no idea about the impossibility of permanent work and abolishing contract system for public services. The political-economy context of this is perhaps not known or at times seems known but a refusal to acknowledge it prevails among the leaders.

On May Day 2016 post at MPP’s Lokniti blog – From Haymarket Square to Hosur Road: State of Workers in India in 3 Charts, I ended with the following –

The direction to move in is to think of how must the workers be armed (not in the weapons sense) to take on this shove from the current economic system which appears to be shortchanging them left, right and center.

I feel the same on May Day 2017 and this is likely to be my outlook for the workers in the next decade too. In the three charts that I shared on last year’s post, I’d say that te number of registered unions might start looking up soon. Case in point – Rakhi Sehgal’s National Trade Union Initiative formed in 2006 has grown from a membership of just 500 workers to nearly 11 lakh by 2011.

There are new labour leaders emerging in India who are making a serious dent by organizing workers and letting businesses know that it won’t be easy for them to feed the workers into the machines for cheap. I’ve known some of these leaders covered by India Today magazine several years back – Face of New Labour, and how they mean serious business.

In these times soaked with neo-liberal ideology, workers are essentially fighting commodification of vital social services like healthcare, education, insurance, work benefits etc. These must be specific sites of focus and targeting these sharply should be the unions’ work. It appears difficult at the moment, but not quite if unions’ recognize that they need to know the nuts and bolts of how the new economy works and that concepts of means of production and labour power has outrun their potential in these times.

Reading Pirsig on road trips

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Ooty. August, 2013

It was a ride to Ooty in the monsoon of 2013. Being no good with dates, the ride registers a clear memory because Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Pirsig was in the bag. At the breakfast table, hundred kilometers down on the road to Mysore, ZAMM was making partial sense. Details and descriptions of the road, landscapes and the bike were identifiable. The thoughtful bits didn’t quite register with the same intensity as in later years when its pages were sought in moments when one wanted to feel enthusiastic about road trips all over again. For someone reading this classic in India it wasn’t a kulturbarer as Pirsig described in the book’s afterword. It was partly about biking and the rest appeared to be about the lives we live and the character of these lived lives. The words “strange and beautiful” were stuck in mind from a NYT review about ZAMM when the buying decision was made. Years later and at a time when I hear the news of author passing away, it feels glad to have come across this book. Beyond the culturally specific notes on life in America, the human condition and people coping with it is perhaps a worldwide phenomenon now, at least in the cities.

This morning when Prisig’s obituary came up, the only mental picture that flashed was a highway, breakfast table with a plate of idlis and coffee, ZAMM in hand, hurriedly getting past two pages to get back on the road. There was a pillion rider and it must be left at saying that those rides were good together.

Bandipur’s forest was bursting with green with the rain as it has every year that I have rode on its narrow roads. On the hills beyond, Ooty appeared cloaked in clouds. That must be the best appearance of this hill town of ruthlessly gashed hill sides to fit in yet another hotel. Coonoor’s YMCA had no guests staying in. That large bedroom on the first floor was almost a time travel. On a small table by the wall, by the evening’s descending cold a diary entry remembering the day’s ride was made.

Pirsig was along on that ride. Understanding what he wanted to convey in ZAMM was a progressive discovery. Some more insights flowed in even as the obituary came in today. It is remarkable that the man took that ride with his son, to square off the events that had occupied his life at that time. I haven’t known of many who reconciled things in life by taking the highway (before it was made fashionable by Bollywood) and returning home with such words and reflection.

There is a section in the book where he writes of teaching. It was easy to relate to. That year, I was about to begin teaching at Poorna. He speaks of experiments that the teacher does with his class, where through assignments on writing the students and he (as a teacher) both figure some important lessons – in seeing and what schools teach.

He writes:

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything – from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

These lines are striking in their relevance to teaching and grading that we do in our school. At the same time, it also makes a teacher cautious about these biases creeping in.

However, it was the metaphor of motorcycle took a long time to hit home –

“The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this.”

Pirsig’s writing appealed to the traveler within and still does. May be it is that zeal with which he writes that is sort of enviable. Or may be about riding and living with this brief sense of being free to ride, take whimsical detours, enjoy the sense of arriving in new places and call it a day when it feels like.

 

Longing for those gone by

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This was in the making for several years. Subconsciously, I have been scripting words to remember Derek and the bitter sweet time spent with him, until the day he flew into England’s harsh winter with a promise to return and find his resting place here in India.

His endless craving for streets of Calcutta, the descriptions of Liluah, Park Street and its cemetery, Esplenade, New Market, Chowringhee… remembered on walks in small town Vellore, is the way I experience these places even after countless visits to Calcutta. Derek’s Calcutta was of the 1940s. The Calcutta I came to know of is six decades later than Derek’s. By his intense longing for the city of his childhood, I came to connect to it just the same, with the same intensity, not because I knew no other, but the fact that Derek’s city is where I loved walking. Derek’s city had these Bangla jingles that he would sing ever so often. It was the city that a man longed for and wanted to be buried in.

Until I met Derek, I had known of people craving for various things in life but not for a plot in Calcutta’s Park Street Cemetery. In his 70s, is when life brought us together on the same seat in a Vellore bound train. That is how we met. Derek was a boy with looks of a 70 year old, sitting in the overheated train coach, comfortable and watching everything happening around, fanning himself with his handkerchief. It wasn’t until the last quarter of our journey that we bothered about introducing ourselves. Why would we, when there was India of 1940s and 1950s to be known from someone who grew up in a boys’ home outside Calcutta. This was thought to be the best way to raise the boys after their father’s death. The adolescent boys would remember every bit of these years after their English mother emigrated with them to England. For Derek, the years were only ticking away to bring him back to India. By the time train rolled into Katpadi juntion, the distance from Bangalore was filled with descriptions of places I had known but from another time. This is where Derek preferred to live. The optimist in him wasn’t hoping for a good time ahead, but only of a desirable burial. It was mildly disconcerting for a man in his mid-twenties to hear that sort of a wish. We got off the train agreeing to meet again. And that is how one of the most remarkable friendship in my life began . It would come to an end in the next three years.

In these three years, I learnt to identify days when Derek would hit the absolute bottom of his spirits. Hopes of a man in late years of his life are emotionally distressful to hear. At least this is how it was with Derek. Some of those days would begin with Derek asking me to make dal-pooris for him. These lentil filled parathas is what he would buy off the streets in Calcutta whenever he was let out of the boys’ home. Since the day he figured I could prepare them, he had found a way to create his virtual reality of his childhood days in our town in South India. With the dal-pooris he’d ask me to play Robin Williams’ song “Better Man”. This became the soundtrack of our friendship. And as he took small bites of dal-pooris, with the song playing, his eyes would brim with tears. The song on those evenings would be on loop and his tears a constant stream. I’d put off the lights and mind my business. I’d never know what was it that he lived in his mind as this one song played. By by the looks of it, something deeply regrettable mixed with intense longing, is probably what he was going through. I would never know.

All of this came with a gush that I knew was how his tears flowed on some evenings. The time from seeing Don Bosco Boys’ Home in Vellore pass by from the bus window to thinking of days spent with Derek, all of it made me long for him. I wanted to see him one more time. It was October or November, when having overstayed his visa he left in panic after we helped him arrange for an exit visa. I didn’t know it then that this would be the last that I will see of Derek. In England, he stayed with his sister, who was ailing herself. His best buddy in a brief two sentence mail told me that Derek was sick. All these men – Derek and his friends that I knew of, appeared remarkably, terribly alone in the evening of their lives. May be it was their choice, but it sure wasn’t a happy experience to see them in their states. Derek would always be upset with his brother who always wanted to talk about his dogs even on those occasional calls that Derek made overseas. It has been seven years since then. Messages to him and his friends have gone unanswered. He isn’t in India for sure, because if he was, he knew the address of our house – which we shared for several months, way too well to walk down even on a dark night.

I remember him sing along Sinatra’s “My Way” whenever I played it. Often he would ask for it. This was his lighter mood. Pensive yet holding strong. He had an LP record of it which he treasured a lot. We would look at that and play the same track from my laptop.
Remembering Derek is to find those three years of my early youth, which offered an experience of friendship unlike any that I’ll ever possibly live again. The clasp of palms to tell me that I’ll do fine in life, whenever anxieties got better of me, that nudge to go ahead and do a thing, the affectionate looks… I missed all of it this afternoon on the streets of Vellore.

Is there a way that one can live to its experiential completeness, the pleasure of a person’s company? Or does a person’s going away makes it even more unbearable – the thought of times spent together? One of the abilities that one can never perhaps have in life is to be able to handle loss, longing and remembering those gone by.

The ordinariness of Indian boys

Manu Joseph’s recent piece on how boy really gets the girl in livemint has been on my mind because it was a rather unusual (and unpopular, if one might add) view on courtship, as it happens between boys and girls in India. This is likely to be a rant.

He was, perhaps, making a reason for himself, for why Badri gets the girl in the movie Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya. It isn’t new for Bollywood to portray such a thing – a deliberately funny boy, confused and well-off falling for a good-looking girl and the chase for her and how they end up together happily a dozen songs later. What caught my attention is this remark that he later makes, on love –

In the real world, love occurs for the simplest reason, that it is very desperate to happen, and because it cannot wait it tends to reward not the extraordinary but the available.

That is an extremely interesting way to look at love and relationships. It is also less acknowledged. I see this happening ever so often – desperate people making hasty choices. Love is desperate to happen and that is why ordinariness works well. The exceptionally talented boy (or girl) doesn’t cut it because he is often not there to participate in the small and commonplace – daily things of life which sort of drive relationships. It is true in either direction. That walk in the park would be less preferred if any of them loves a good workout by running. The idle banter at a public place is likely to happen less if either of them is a voracious reader. These could be termed as personal preferences, but of course these are shaped by aspirations of the individual. One with the least, gets to make it to most of the mall hopping and ice-cream eating sessions late night or mid-day. And this ability to be there makes the ordinary win. Manu writes of this,

The regular guy is in the right place at the right time because he is up and about most times even as his formidable competition is hidden in solitary confinement working long hours on heroic dreams.

Whether heroic or not, those with a long list of things to-do, and which do not quite involve the partner, lose out on relationships often. Long working hours is a relationship killer. But wait, this may not be for all. Some people get along well, if they have to, but we’d be purists in assuming that love prevails over all odds. It doesn’t. It falls through, the moment either of the partner’s personal pursuits foreshadows the time that they can spend together.

It is a difficult terrain to write about as a man, although Manu’s piece appears to be from the male viewpoint. I am however of the opinion that the sense of ordinariness and being committed to a personal pursuit is true of both boys and girls. So, the issue can run in either direction. Also, that one’s own situation is likely to induce an analytical bias here. Being single, the piece looked like a compelling commentary on how relationships unfold, at least in urban settings. It could be seen differently by those who are married and that, after a long period of courtship. May be, it works differently for everyone, however, the observation that one is often surprised to see the choice of boy that a girl makes, hits home for me. And Badri… sort of portrays that well.

The odd thing here is that it is the ordinary which seems to have a rather nice and sorted life as far as relationship is concerned. The rest either have to make hard choices or fall by the side, sticking to their pursuits.