Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Saturday, 21 March 2009
They were all there, homeless, unemployed and with no money for food as I walked in that day. I had stepped into the Indian consulate office in Dubai for my personal work when the staff there asked me if I spoke the Telugu language. Telugu being my mother tongue, I nodded. The Amnesty programme was underway and they needed somebody who spoke the language to communicate with the labourers who were caught during the raid. The Amnesty programme in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a month long programme intended to catch illegal immigrants and send them back home.
What started out as a simple help in translating and communicating soon began to mean much more to me as I started preparing food for them. Initially I used to prepare food , put them in packets and distribute it to the homeless men outside the Indian High School in Dubai.
Presently, I cook around 20kilos of rice, 20 kilos of Dal and add some vegetables in as well for its nutritious effect. I give packets to around 100 people. My day starts before sunrise as I get up and prepare food for these labourers. Some of the packets are distributed in the Karama and Bur Dubai parks where some of the labourers sleep.
In the night I take these food packets to the series of labour camps in Sonapur in a second hand car that I have rented out for this purpose. I take two packets per person for these labourers so that they have dinner and can have breakfast as well, the next day. I go to the camp with the food packets by 9pm and return by 12 am or sometimes 1 am.
As time passed, I realised that these labourers had other pressing needs as well including the fact that some of them needed urgent medical attention. There were elderly as well as sick workers. While some of them were injured while working in the construction sites, others have long spells of unattended illness.
The rest of Dubai would perhaps know Sonapur as a place where labourers stay in company provided camps. But I have seen men here who find daily survival a challenge.
Winters in Sonapur are tough as they sleep on the cold sand in a large compound with only thin cardboard sheets as their blankets. As my car stops at the entrance of the compound, these homeless men come running to me. While some of them wait for their food packets, others would like to know when they can go home.
I started helping these people by providing food and medicines but today I also help them in processing their out passes and in getting their tickets sponsored. When some of these labourers die, I make arrangements to send their bodies back home to their families.
Most of the labourers who come here , just know their names. We probe into their history and then realise that the company would have withheld their passport. To retrieve the passport, we would have to sometimes pay their company PRO (Public Relation Officer), large amounts as fines.
Slowly, I also started preparing food for men who did work on daily wages but sacrificed meals to save money.Initially, I started helping out Telugu speaking labourers but today I not only prepare food for Indians but also for Bangaldeshis and Nepalis as well.
I also travel nowadays to the neighbouring emirates of Abudhabi, Al ain and Ajman as well as visit illegal immigrants in the different jails and provide food to them.If provided with documents and the money for their ticket, these people can exit to their respective countries.
I do not know how frequently the Indian embassy visits these people or know how bad their condition is.But I do know that they are not very kind towards them or provide them with the requisite support.The UAE Government is quite considerate and do not collect money for documentation but the Indian Embassy not only collects the initial charges but also takes unnecessarily long time to cancel their visas.
Unaided , these labourers are made to go through a lot of trouble with their embassies. Sometimes, cancellation takes as much as 15 to 20 days.The employees at the embassy do not realise the graveness of the time delay as these labourers , deprived of a place to stay , end up in parks and subsequently in jails.Any embassy is responsible for the safety and security of its respective citizens. These labourers are not at fault for being in the state they are.
Financially, I am not only hard pressed for needs but have run into a huge debt now with my credit card bills, rent charges, electricity and other bills. I get offers for sponsorship sometimes but that would be just for that one instance.
Initially, I had taken up a room for some of the labourers to sleep but now they sleep in my clinic which has lost most of its business because I rarely am able to spend time there.
Many of the sponsors promise to help and then fail to fulfil their promise. I end up paying them as I hate to disappoint them.
I have approached many successful businesses for sponsorships but they refuse to pay directly and instead go through the embassy so they can approach the embassy for their own personal favours. A reputed Indian school here in Dubai agreed to provide sponsorship if I made arrangements to publish an advertisement in the newspaper that the school together with the Indian embassy donated the amount.
Often I fail to get sponsorships because genuine sponsorships lack any commercial viability.
I have two children , a son and a daughter who study back home.Initially they did not like my work but now they understand what I do.My husband used to beat me for what I would do because all our savings were being used for this work but he has become more understanding now.
I do not know how long I can go on but I will do as long as I can.
-As told to Jethu Abraham
P.S : Dr Shashikala can be contacted on on 00971503592608 if anyone is interested to help her.
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
When the first CCTV shot of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab was shown to the world, viewers and readers stared in disbelief not probably so much at the terrorist who with his counterparts rocked the city of Mumbai and the world, but at the fact that the twenty one year old was branded so, at his age.
Once the initial shock set in, reporters wasted no time in dramatically pointing out what they thought looked like a sadistic smile in a garbled image. The lone captured terrorist in the 26/11 attack on Mumbai city, it was not long before Kasab’s supposed past in Pakistan was raked out by investigative journalists and his stereotype whereabouts laid bare before the world.
If one was to believe the authenticity of the details unearthed, then Ajmal’s story once again is that of a typical adolescent gone awry in the company of the wrong kind of people, in this case, the notorious Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).And assuming that his statements thereafter were not under pressure, Ajmal’s pleas sounded a far cry from someone who had any kind of fanatical beliefs.
Some media sources state Kasab’s interrogation reports as a hapless story of a village lad having a lack of ambition and an illusionary vision of making it big in life as the reason to join an outfit notorious for ‘catching them young’. Other reports speak of a young man who spoke flawless English, knew his mission well and who came from a prosperous middle class family background, all in the inimitable LeT style of ‘catching them affluent and educated.’
While the suppositions are yet to be clarified, devoid of Kasab’s advanced combat and specialised navigation training and baseless scriptural ’ rote reading’ practices, what remains is his age. Irrespective of his background or nationality, Kasab deserves no sympathy of any sorts for his action but it is imperative for us to realise that even while his interrogation is going on, the next batch of youngsters are being trained for an even more disastrous series of attacks. And not for their beliefs but for their age, which is probably the biggest global take-home message in this attack.
How can a young man just out of adolescence, be guided and trained to senselessly and remorselessly kill hundreds of innocent people capable of no harm? And how is it that these youngsters are convinced that their brutal actions are for a greater good?
A popular assumption is that of the young mind who is influenced by his situational and social circumstances, say, for example, he witnesses the death of his loved ones, pointing him ultimately to the highway for his own treacherous actions years later. It is easy to seduce such a mind into the role of an ‘avenger’ and thereby be ensnared into the falsified and ‘pseudo heroic’ responsibility frame of obtaining justice.
But what about others like Kasab who come from no such trauma stricken background and whose association with crime was once upon a time supposedly only in the form of small time misdemeanours or petty street robberies?
Derision could have been one technique as was used among young Palestinian suicide bombers during the Palestinian-Israel conflicts. Not volunteering for a suicide bomb attack made the children an object of ridicule among their friends in the background of a falsified urgency for the need of martyrs for a cause. Of curse, martyrdom, in itself has become a cult.
Anne Speckhard, adjunct associate Professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Centre and Professor of Psychology, Vesalius College, Free University of Brussels, writes:
From a very young age children are socialised into a group consciousness that honours "martyrs", including human bombers who have given their lives for the fight against what is perceived by Palestinians to be the unjust occupation of their lands. Young children are told stories of 'martyrs'. Many young people wear necklaces venerating particular 'martyrs', posters decorate the walls of towns and rock and music videos extolling the virtues of bombers. Despite the very deep and real grief of the family and friends left behind, the funerals of 'martyrs' are generally accompanied with much fanfare by community and terror organisations.
The famous’ Baby suicide bomber’ photograph of a young toddler in Hamas outfits that found its way in many an inbox shocked the world and many assumed it to be false. Yet people in Palestine claim this to be a norm and ever since many pictures have made it to the media, of young boys and girls toting around with guns and magazines.
Kasab apparently is a school drop out. The young children in Palestine would in all probability have not had a chance to be in one. So it would not be fair to point fingers at the lack of impact an educational system can make on these minds. Though the effect of education today is limited to only influencing a person’s thinking in the background of logic and reasoning, one is tempted to wonder on whether these children would ever have been targets to such acts had they been educated?
Another strong point for the psychological basis behind human aggressiveness and violent behaviour is that ‘When we feel bad we are more likely to act bad,’ (Berkowitz, 1993). The start of this behaviour need not necessarily be anger. Aversive situations regardless of whether they are frustration, depression or anger make violent actions more likely.
This would also probably bring out yet another situational factor where the child terrorists are taught it ‘fair’ to hurt the ones near and dear to the oppressors that the terrorists are fighting against. This thought is indirectly routed in the minds of these child terrorists as the provocation to justify and make the killing of innocents, a rewarding experience. Of course, if each of us were to look back at our own adolescent experiments and experiences, the realisation would dawn on us on the kind of imprints people left on our minds and the quality of the decisions that we took at that age. Evidently, one can grow terrorists without even trying.
Last year, The Telegraph ran a report on a Pakistan army claim to have overrun a camp in a territory where the notorious Pakistani Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud, operated. Militants had transformed a government-run school near the village of Spinkai in South Waziristan into what one officer described as a “nursery for preparing suicide bombers”.
In another location, military investigators found film footage on a DVD that they believed depicted children at the school being taught suicide training. The footage, which was shown to journalists, contained images of a masked teacher instructing rows of schoolchildren who wore white headbands inscribed with Quranic verses. The teacher pointed at the blackboard while an armed guard stood alongside and discussed what to carry in a suicide attack.
Major General Athar Abbas, the army’s chief spokesman, said that the school and a hospital had been taken over by militants “to prepare children for suicide attacks and for making IEDS [improvised explosive devices]”.
Despite human organisations like Amnesty International strongly condemning indoctrination of children for military, commando or suicidal operations, a serious effort in this regard would have lessened or done away with one of the cruelest forms of warfare.
In the interim, somewhere in this world, a packed room of children intently listen to a fanatical religious leader spew out inanities in the name of fighting a ‘holy war’ and’ martyrdom’, while their more decisive friends train outside in combat warfare, hell bent on laying their lives for the same absurd cause.
Monday, 10 November 2008
Packing my bags for a night flight to Mumbai, a cheap brochure on Asia’s largest laundry alley in Mumbai catch my attention sticking out at an odd angle from one of my rucksack’s many pockets. “Don’t forget the Dhobi Ghat. Not exactly on your way but you might learn something there,” sneers my roommate eyeing the piece of paper in my hand which she had rudely shoved in minutes before, as a not- so- subtle hint to my supposedly OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) ways.
A day later, I was to hear the name again. Squinting at the angry afternoon sunlight on Mahalaxmi Bridge in Mumbai, I was on the lookout for a young thirty something lady who was assigned by the Tourism Board to accompany me in my tour of the city. If you are a South Indian and on your first visit to India’s commercial capital, you would have arrived into the city with countless warnings about pick pocketeers, eve teasers and rapists echoing through your head. As I waited on the crowded bridge, thoughts flashed across my head and I almost yelped when I felt a small but sturdy poke on my back.
I turn just in time to hear a chirpy. “Manik Walame, Official Tourist Guide from India Tourism Board, at your service madam.” I grinned. It was not very often that you get to instantly like the guide you are assigned to on your travels. Most just nose through tour itineraries.
“Let’s just get out from this mad rush of people and bullocks Manik.I can barely hear myself think.”I shout to the 4’ lady who return my suggestion with a frown.
“But this is our first tourist spot-Dhobi Ghat,” she shouts back her eyebrows narrowed to strongly accompany her response.
“Dhobi what?” I think aloud the familiarity hitting me like a ton of bricks.
“The Dhobi Ghat is a unique feature of Mumbai city and one that has lately been of great interest among tourists from different parts of the world. Their literal translation meaning ‘Laundry Rows ‘, these portions of the city have been a part of Mumbai for over 120 years, the most famous of the lot being the one in….”
“Where the hell did you learn to speak like that, Manik?”
“….Saat Rasta near Mahalaxmi Station”
“Maha…station. Isn’t that nearby,” I shout amidst the din of the crowd as a train chugs into view.
“Its just behind you,” she replies in a mock weary tone.
“Wha…” I turn to look behind me and at what I thought all along was one of Mumbai’s slum pockets. What I actually now notice is a whole new scene of colour and noise with lines of pristine and well starched clothes and beneath them row upon row of concrete washpens, each fitted with its own flogging stone and on which bare chested men beat what look like long slings of clothes.
I remember with a shudder my own college days when laundry was an expensive option on our meagre pocket money and the cloth stone was the only way to cleaner clothes. Washing jeans or bed sheets were the worst of the tasks as the drenched clothes almost often threatened to take our puny bodies along with them at every sling.
“Come, let’s talk to one of them,” I grab my camera and run down the stairs and into the alley with Manik. Frenzied tourists are a common sight in any part of India as the culture and tradition often offers a heady thrill, so I did not stand out with my curious looks.
One would easily be forgiven to think that all the men who were thrashing the clothes were following some invisible rhythm as they took aim, raised the cloth and pounded at the stone, almost at the same time.
Shiva Kumar stood thrashing a bedsheet a bit away from the sudsy small troughs that ran in a criss cross fashion across the area. He stops for a minute to give us a ‘what-the-hell-are- you-staring-at’ look.
Manik walks along to him and warbles in Marathi at an amazing speed and his unfriendly stare is immediately replaced by a warm grin.
He looks at his fellow men proudly at work and then speaks to Manik in a combination of English and Marathi. I tiptoe over to them to get a few answers.
Manik translates, “He says the clothes are soaked in soapy water, thrashed on the flogging stones, then tossed into huge vats of boiling starch and hung out to dry. Next they are ironed and piled into neat bundles. Each dhobi marks a unique symbol or character on garments belonging to a particular household. This is marked in black indelible ink to prevent it from being washed off. Since the dhobi charges are much lower than dry cleaners, they are popular with most households.”
“And why are there only men?”I ask.
Manik puts the question across to Shiva who in reply puffs up his chest and answers in a deep baritone voice and I understand his reply even before the translation.
“It is a man’s job, “says Manik anyway.
My eyebrows narrow for a debate but decide against it noticing his bulging biceps and his throbbing veins as they expand and contract to keep pace with his cloth thrashing. I have always had a deep sense of respect for physical prowess.
“The British made this area for the washermen years ago to wash and starch their clothes and now the people of this area do the washing for the entire city. Today almost 200 dhobis and their families work together in what has always been a hereditary occupation” continues Manik.
Shiva puts a hand across his chest and beams again when he looks squarely at me and says, “We no study but no mistake till today,”
I return the beaming smile.
Quite weary of quintessential indianness being touted to delight the average European tourist, I would have left the continent’s largest laundry alley as just that but my first contact with the city taught me all I needed to know about Mumbai: Everybody survives here and in good measure.
Thursday, 18 September 2008
The slow misty curtain that was a prelude to the monsoon drenched month of July stopped dubiously for a second before it slowly proceeded to clear the air for the first break of light of the day. Squinting at the sharp glare, we tried to grab an extra bit of sleep but were rudely woken up by a tired looking guide who in his eagerness to make an extra penny had urged us, a team of travel writers to pen Kodanad Elephant Sanctuary as the last of the ‘101 things to do in Kerala’ in our itinerary.
“Laksmi is still sleeping but she will be up in a while and then we can play with her,” said Girish, our enthusiastic guide.
Lying on the southern bank of Periyar and cradled among the high ranges, Kodanad was once one of the largest elephant-capturing centres of South India. After the law banned elephant capturing in 1977, the elephant kraal and training centre remained intact and today six elephants inhabit the sanctuary with three of them adept at entertaining tourists. Two-year-old Lakshmi was the youngest and was already famed as a wild child of sorts.
Enticing us with stories of Lakshmi and her troubled past for most of the two-hour journey, we had scarcely noticed the deep rumblings from our empty stomachs. Now as we proceeded to walk towards the sanctuary, an unmistakeable aroma of freshly steamed Puttu and Kadala(steamed rice cakes and chickpeas curry) strongly beckoned us from the roadside.
We located the origin of the aroma to a dilapidated hut that doubled up as a tea stall and looked like it could whip up breakfast for three hungry people. The dark insides of the tea stall had all the bearings of a typical teashop shown in Malayalam movies. Two men were bending low over the morning newspaper; with one of them occasionally reading the highlights aloud well above the old Malayalam film song that filled the small room.
With the only light in the room coming from the window, we could barely make out the silhouette of a lanky frame pouring something noisily from one container to the other. The efficiency was unmistakeable. Caught by a child like curiosity we grabbed our cameras and almost scared Hari out of his concentration.
Born and raised in the nearby town of Perumbavoor(a nearby town), Hari’s father owned the teashop and passed it on to him after his death. While the elder son handled the cash, 32-year-old Hari helped his mother and wife in the kitchen.
The Malayalee’s affinity to tea and teashops are legendary. Jokes like Neil Armstrong reaching the moon jubilantly and being crestfallen on discovering a ‘Kunjappan(common Malayalee name) tea stall’ already there for years, have made the rounds a zillion times.
Despite all the political brouhahas, flashes of globalisation, high literacy rates, cultural facelifts and communal riots, the common man’s teashop have stood time tested and proud. The delicacies and the environment are a rarity. A cantankerous radio, the local gossip, the ever crowing cock behind the shop all in the background of a general laidback air that has this delectable aroma of delicacies unknown to a world of Starbucks, Costa and Café Coffee Day.
A small glass cupboard will boast plates of uzhunuvada, parippuvada, motta baji, ethakka appam(snacks of Kerala)and the like. The teashop owner expects you to ask when it was made so don’t think you might offend him. A passer-by is forgiven for asking as well for the glass cabinet looks antique and unwashed but the wares are mostly fresh.
The average teashop owner expects you to know the requisites before ordering your famous Kerala tea aka One Metre Tea. Our guide shouts “Randu strong with, Oru without”which was unscrambled for us to mean two strongly brewed cups of tea with sugar and one cup without sugar. With a lazy nonchalance, Hari then took the brew from the broiler and stretching two containers as humanly far as possible from each other, he performed a sheer act of brilliance, as the concoction poured in a highly disciplined fashion from container to the other.
All we saw were flashes of the steel containers, which moved effortlessly from one direction to the other and to some strange rhythm without a drop spilling out from them. An impressive and bulbous layer of froth bubbled at the top of the teacup threatening to spill but stayed solemn after a while.
A friend once lamented, “Kerala tea is just froth and nothing else” but the charm lies not in the quantity but in the quality which makes the global Malayalee all the more nostalgic. His down the memory lanes are incomplete without the sweet, thick well brewed and steaming cups of tea that promises to give you a definite high.
We said goodbye to Hari and his teashop, took pictures, played with the elephants,pampered Lakshmi and almost got killed in her loving embrace before we packed bags and proceeded to hit the road back to Cochin.
On our way we passed by Hari again who stood outside his shop for a smoke.Seeing us, he rushed to our side and said,”Chechi Chai ready” (Sister,tea is ready)
Sunday, 14 September 2008
A wisp from the scented Agarbatti smoke waft towards me--the perfect background to the Kaniyaan’s words as he studies carefully the series of criss crossed lines on my outstretched palm.
After a long pause, he murmurs inaudibly, then sits back thoughtfully.
"Times are not good, kutty," he continues in the Palakkad slang I love to hear so much...
"Go home.You are not meant to be alone. Nobody is. Not even the stars. Even they need planetary movements to support their existence." He closes his books and sets his board aside, a soft wave of 70 years of experience crossing his face as he puts a wrinkled hand on my shoulder and nods his head in a way that reminds me of my father.
Outside,the rains are less forgiving.
Future has a way of arriving unnoticed, I muse aloud. Like the summer rains.
Half way down the ride, the autorickshaw I am travelling in comes to a rickety halt. The driver whisphers a drenched curse and pulls vigorously at a lever beside me.
Twenty minutes later, I am walking down the road, my wet hair hanging by my sides, the numbness enveloping me. I do not know if its the rain or the sharp slivers from my own cold emotions.
A pink board urging to fight breast cancer catch my eye. I stop to read. I see the smiling faces on the board and think of their darkest moments. I wonder if it was like mine. Did their thoughts get sucked in by the tiny nodes that were plugged on to their forehead? Could they feel the lashing waves that frothed at the end of their mouths?
STD ISD PCO
A red and yellow board screams at me. I call the Kaniyaan again. I ask him how much longer I would live. The astrologer in him dissapears and my father's best friend begs me to return home. I disconnect the line during one of his helpless pauses. I know he is praying for me.
My pulse quickens at the urgency I feel somewhere inside my head.Desolation. I know I will dissapear into one of those dark tunnels again. Those unexplainable time warps that gnaw painfully at the ends of my nerves. I usually wake up from those episodes, my throat parched and covered in perspiration.
Today I feel prepared. I will fight them. I remember Achen's and Amma's faces over me. Achen's eyebrows narrowed in perpetual worry, Amma's face pale from crying. The medicines never helped then. The thick ropes did. The local temple priest narrated examples of countless people diagnosed with MPD(Multiple Personality Disorders) who were ‘disciplined by the gods.’ Prehistoric, but Achen and Amma succumbed to some raw reality that worked with the tautness of those ropes where the science behind chemicals failed.
I see a tea shop and step inside. I sit next to one of the surprised faces.The cantankerous noise inside ceases with my presence but an overwhelming stench is too strong to bear. A man in his early forties clad in just a chequered loin cloth rushes to my side, "Can I have a glass of hot tea, please?"I ask him almost immediately.
He looks around for a minute and then giving a wry smile tells me, "This is a toddy shop chechi.For men only."
His last line brings forth a blend of thunderous laughter and hoot-cries.
Of course, it is.How could I not recognise the stench.
I could now feel the knot within me unfurling itself like as if it had lost all hopes to remain taut and diplomatic and was eager to unleash its fury to the hilt.
Clearing my throat, I repeat my request more feebly than I want it to be. The man doesn't understand and my request is answered with more raucous laughter.
I stand up and feel a strong nauseous wave throw me off balance. Ignoring it, I march towards the kitchen , my insides threatening to burst out through my head.
A cold wet smell greets me as I enter the kitchen.I look around me for something to silence those countless groans of pain in my head.
Suddenly a noise startles me . I turn behind and see a young woman hurriedly searching for something among the dark silhouettes of the pots and pans. Clad in a knit top, muddied pair of chinos and flip flops, I am surprised to see someone like her within the dark interiors of a rustic toddy shop in a remote town in Kerala.
Murmuring something to herself in an irate tone, she searches hurriedly among the numerous pots and pans that are now angrily strewn all across the floor.
“ Get out of my kitchen else I will call the police, you mad woman,” a male voice shrieks from the corner. The sharp glare of the daylight from outside prevents me from seeing the person to whom the voice belong. I look beside me and see the girl look at the doorway for a minute, before turning her head away. As if realising that her time was running out, she runs to the tap above a broken wash basin and holding her mouth very close to the rust coated pipe, drink with loud noisy slurps.
I had felt a deep sense of calm seeing her all along that I had forgotten my despair.Yet even as she drank the water, I could feel an inner thirst being quenched. I would have been staring at her pointedly for she suddenly raise her head and wipes wet strands away from her face and looking at me smiles and says, “I think I might not make it this time,Indu.I can no longer hear myself think.”
From beside the basin she takes an ugly knife and slashes both her wrists. There is a loud noise of rushing feet and people trying to jump over the broken shards of glass and pottery.
Suddenly I can only sense two beings in the room: just the two of us. I try to understand her smile but I know fate has delayed me as we look at each other.
Noiselessly she crumples on to the floor, the smile on her face frozen for time.
I had already felt the cold unwelcome touch of the hard kitchen floor.
Thursday, 11 September 2008
Down the valley right on my favourite rock I sat
Stealing the blend of washerwomen’s songs whisked with the jaywalk’s chatter
The evening sun splashed her last rays across the horizon
A low breeze whistled a fancy into my ear
The wind chimed her anklets further
I sank my feet surreptiously into the temptingly chilly beneaths
Hiding the world’s inquisitive eyes , the clouds gathered above
Naked and smiling,I scissored through the thick oblivion below….
A passing mackerel below nibbled at my knee
Somewhere an expectant frog called out for his partner
Stepping back on my favourite rock, I watched the mangrove branches sway
Their fragrant ripeness blending rendering a blossoming air
When lost in the whirlwind of time, I crave for moments I call my own
Its my day down at the valley that I cherish the most
For I see myself the happiest amidst the slivers of moonlight and the mangrove shade
Than all the cheers that the world has to spare.