Monday, November 24, 2008

Tale of two strangers…

It is part of my profession to talk to anybody on the street, because that’s how I get the news. But, it is strange when people catch have this instinct to strike a conversation with you, without any context and expect you to react. Especially auto rickshaw drivers. This was not my first experience of having a light chat with an auto rickshaw driver; yet, it was strange how he observed me, expecting me to react to everything that he wanted to say. He was obviously in the mood for some friendly banter. And yeah it was a 45 minute drive.

I as usual took an auto rickshaw from home to hurriedly get to office. A meeting! I was late, in a mess and tense. I usually make most of my calls to check if anything has happened in the criminal world while I am traveling, because I have to report at the meeting. This middle-aged auto rickshaw driver, with large eyes, big built and dyed hair kept looking at me through the rear view mirror. I thought, `just another annoying lecherous man’. I was talking to a colleague about a rape and a murder which I had reported a day ago. He obviously seemed to have figured out that I am a journalist.

The moment I hung up, he asked me in Kannada, `what rape were you talking about?’. I thought for a minute before reacting and he repeated again, what was that you were talking about?’ I said, `well, you must have heard about the woman who was raped in Chikpet yesterday’. And he says, `yeah yeah yeah. Ocourse, read it in Sanjevaani (most sought after evening Kannada daily newspaper’.

`And then the murder. What was that?’ he asked again. I said, `well, a murder has been reported this morning in Chenammanakere Acchukattu’. And his big large eyes went rolling and he suddenly turned to look at me with a question mark gleaming on his face, obviously looking for some more dope. I did not have much to say. So then he continued with his banter. I was amazed by the stuff he came up with. Especially his English. Yeah. He preferred to speak to me in English after sometime, though he knew that I could respond in Kannda.

``You know, kids nowadays, I mean rich kids have become a daily contributor to the increasing crime in the city. They have their father’s money and don’t know what to do with it’’. And then he looked at me. I said nothing. He continued. ``These IT professionals, they can live a happy life. You know. But, they either commit suicide, or they kill their spouse or they are into some economic crime’.

`And the rowdy menace. It has become intolerable. The other day, I saw a man being cut into pieces in the middle of a busy road. I mean, why?’. I said, ``The city is very unsafe’. Responded just for the sake of it as he obviously wanted me to react. Then he says, `I have stopped interacting with anybody. I have my family and I finish work and get home. That’s all. Nothing more than that. We can’t trust anybody these days’.


Then there was silence for almost 20 mins. I was almost reaching office. And then he goes again. This time he took me by surprise, cause it had nothing to do with the earlier topic. `Can I ask you something?’. Even before I could react he said, `Don’t you think there should be a rule that a man and woman should not involve in a relationship before marriage? I mean, in my generation, when I was studying PUC (12th standard), I did not even look at a girl. We feared our parents. Even if we like someone, we never got involved with the person. Nothing before a marriage’.

I did not know what to say. Then he says, `You know I get embarrassed when couples try getting cozy while traveling in my autorickshaw. I cannot even say anything, as it is not right to intrude into their privacy. But, I don’t feel good about it’.

He asked me again, `Don’t you think there should be a rule?’. I said, `I really don’t think that is possible’. He then smiled and said, `And then there are men and women who have extra marital affairs’. There was no more time for any reaction. I had reached office. He took the money and smiled. While I walked away, he drove off.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


The Hooch Tragedy which struck half of Bangalore and Tamilnadu on May 18, 2008 still remains fresh in my mind. I can recollect the night when I got a message about 20 bodies being shifted to Bowring Hospital in Shivajinagar and the person told me that they had consumed spurious liquor. I could not believe the scenes that followed therefater at the hospital and at the Roshan Mohalla slum in DJ Halli. I revisited the place on November 17, 2008 and I was shocked to see that life in the village was back to normal, with none of the promises made by the BBMP or local politicians had been kept. I saw little kids walking around sniffing whitener, gulping down bottles of cough syrup and men lying on garbage dumps after consuming spurious liquor. The mark of the hooch tragedy still remains, but, nobody wants to stick on to it. Women who lost their husbands have preferred to get on with their lives. It was a strange feeling which left a mark on my mind when I walked out of DJ Halli.

This was the most memorable article which my colleague and I wrote after we visited the eerie Roshan Mohalla in DJ Halli on May 31, 2008.

Saturday May 31 2008 16:40 IST ENS
Soumya Menon and Jayadevan PK
Roshan Mohalla in DJ Halli is like a ghost town. A despairing silence reigns over the place. The residents are still trying to understand what hit them on May 18 when 60 people died after drinking illicit liquor. This is the worst hit locality. Almost everyone seems to have lost someone — a family member, friend or acquaintance — to the deadly brew. The sense of hopelessness is almost palpable among those who have lost their fathers, sons, brothers — all breadwinners. More than 160 people from the region are still being treated at the government hospitals in Bangalore. One of those affected is Muniyamma, who lives in the smallest house in Roshan Mohalla. The woman who works as a labourer and doubles as a domestic help to make ends meet, lost her husband Nagaraj to the brew. She has had trouble enough, but her problems just seem to be beginning. Muniyamma says she has received the allotted Rs 50,000 for the death of Nagaraj, but that is no consolation. “My mother Parvathamma is fighting for life at Star Hospital in Madiwala. They do not provide free treatment. She is in the ICU and we pay almost Rs 5,000 every day. Now we do not know what to do, as we do not have any money left,” she says. Her younger sister Parvathi, who was also married to Nagaraj, has not received her share of the compensation. “I have one son who is studying. Muniyamma has one young child. Now, we women are the only ones left in the family to bear the expenses and take care of everything,” weeps Parvathi. DJ Halli is full of similar stories. Shanta lost her husband Dore and older son Selva, both labourers and is desperately trying to find a way to feed his children. “I have another son who is also a labourer. Now he is the only earning member in the family. We are still trying to pick ourselves up,” she said. The hustle and bustle that was there in the locality is now missing. A strong smell of DDT pervades the air. Walking down a street that has more than 200 huts, there is little to hear other than the echoes of the voices of little girls who are either orphaned or left with a single parent. Occasionally, you hear the sound of a television programme coming from one of the houses. The only other sounds are those of the self-important honking of trucks belonging to the excise department, whose officials have descended on the village. It is a bit late in the day, but they are going about their task of checking and probing. The villagers have reacted to their presence with a mixture of resentment and bewilderment. They wonder what department officials were doing when the bootleggers were plying their trade before the tragedy. Why could they not have foreseen what had happenned? After all, that is their task. Better enforcement could have spared people such as Sampurna the agony of having to bear the entire burden herself. Sampurna’s world came crashing down when her sister Rani (38) fell victim to the killer brew. She left two children — Rani’s husband had deserted her long ago, and she was fending for Devi (12), Idumba (5) and her mother Ramayi (60) on her own. Now there is only Sampurna to take care of them, and she has her own family to look after. The responsibilities have doubled but there is no additional income for a deeply apprehensive Sampurna. She wonders how she will provide for everyone. “It is a good thing that the government is giving us Rs 50,000 but I feel that it is not enough,” she says. Given the awesome scale of her responsibilities, that is an understatement. Fathima, who lost her husband 10 years ago, has nowhere to go after the death of her two sons — Maula and Mehboob. Both men were married and have minor children. There is no surviving male. “Who will now fend for the women and children?” she asks. Fathima’s daughter has heard that her brother was poisoned to death at the hospital. “Mehboob was recovering. Nobody can explain how his condition deteriorated suddenly,” she says. While the hordes of social workers, government officials and political leaders come and go, waxing lyrical about the plight of DJ Halli and what lies ahead, the residents of Roshan Mohalla are busy with the humbler task of fetching water. That is something of which the area has never had enough. Maybe it is the only remnant of business as usual in the layout. After the arrest of Soundar Rajan, who is said to have supplied the spurious liquor, the villagers have just one question: “Will the government and others open their eyes and see the sorry state of the families that the deceased have left behind?” Perhaps they will. Or maybe the next tragedy will distract their attention altogether. The people have learnt, in the hardest, most painful way possible, that they could have prevented this calamity if only they had known that spurious liquor is the kiss of death.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


When the figures clearly showed that Senator Barack Obama had taken a huge leap ahead of Senator John McCain, there were predictions and superstitions running wild across the globe. This is the first time that the US Presidential Elections had attracted attention across the globe, only because of one man—Obama. And off course the global meltdown. And then within couple of hours, the figures showed Obama going way beyond the 270 mark and America's 44th President had emerged.

Whether this African American can bring about global change is the challenge. With America undergoing the biggest crisis affecting all countries across the globe, this man is seen as the saviour. I am no political analyst or economy expert to comment on how this will affect the global economy. But, I would certainly share my views on how I was drawn towards watching Obama's victory on television.

On Tuesday night, I decided that I would watch the last process of `AMERICA VOTES' on television. I set an alarm for 6 am for Wednesday.

Right on time. I was alone at home. All televisions in my neighbourhood were blaring loud with television anchors going breathless talking about the figures rising. When I switched on the TV at home, it all synchronized.

All I recall is that Obama had conquered half of USA and he was still waiting for the rest in his camp in Chicago. Meanwhile, McCain and Obama had already had a telephonic conversation, which was amazing. This 42-year-old man was to be the new face of America.

I was switching my attention from watching the television and reading the newspapers. Obama was all over. And then I shift my gaze from the newspaper to the television and the screen was flashing big and wide…``OBAMA ELECTED THE 44TH US PRESIDENT''. The feeling was great. There were celebrations across the globe.

Television news channels were shifting from one location to another airing the celebrations.

But, did anybody sit up and look at the 72-year-old John McCain who even after his failure to conquer the Presidential elections, said, ``this is my loss. But, my people of Arizona, this is a victory for you. You have got the best leader who will lead America. You have to support him. We have to support him and ascertain him that we will contribute on our own way to help him get America out of this crisis''. And the crowd could say nothing more than shout…``John McCain''. Smiles, not of loss, but, of faith in McCain was spread across Arizona.

I could not have missed this. But, I would like to say that more than a Presidential speech, these words of Sentor John McCain were most inspiring. What it means to me as an Indian who has never been to America. Well, more than what it means, it is just an inspirational speech which Indian politicians should pick up and learn. God save Indian politicians. A comparison would be foolish, yet, where will you find an opposition party leader in India supporting the ruling party? Other than allegations and political gimmicks, there is nothing more to a party which loses elections.

And then off course the great Obama speech. Powerpacked. Spontaneous. Like a stream of consciousness. Like a lightning. I postponed my trip to the shop to just watch his speech.

The strange part about this whole issue is that NRIs have suddenly turned supportive of Obama, when they do not realise that this will hugely affect their industry, ultimately bombing everything attached to the IT sector. In what way, well, I really can't explain. However, celebrations were full on across Bangalore city. This man is some character.

And as I started writing this post, I checked my email inbox and found this email. The most touching email I received from a cousin who has lived half a decade in America, inspired me to think of how pristine and bright the future is for Indian immigrants in America. However, I hope and wish that this African American Democrat or rather a people's President will tie up loose ends of every knot tied to the Global Power.

Her email goes like this:

Politics – A perspective from an Indian immigrant now a US citizen

I was born and raised in India. India shaped my values, early education and provided me with rich multicultural experiences. I continue to love India because it is a progressive nation and is openly tolerant towards all religions and races. I grew up to be a tolerant person because of those core Indian values. Politics was not on my mind at that time. Like a typical teenager, I was focused more on college, hanging out with friends, and watching movies. I was least interested in politics because then I thought that the Indian political system was hideously corrupt and that made me cynical about the Indian government. I did learn in civics that we had a parliamentary form of government and we had the right to vote and that was it for me. Then I moved as an immigrant to USA in 1999. Primary reason for the move was to acquire better education and fulfill my ambitions. After 5 years, I was sworn in as a US citizen because it felt good to have a US passport. I considered myself as a pseudo American in an Indian skin. I continued to be cynical about politics after Bush got re-elected for the second term. I did believe that democracy was a fancy political term in this nation because of Electoral vote system. I detested shows like Olbermann, O' Reilly factor or Lou Dobbs that discussed politics and government divisively to promote their extreme partisan views. They failed to take a neutral stand.

Let me begin to tell you how my interest in politics was aroused. A young senator from Illinois, who gave an inspiring speech in 2004 democratic convention, finally caught my eye. So what happened in 2008? Just as I hoped, this skinny black man beat the odds of clinching the democratic presidential nomination in 2008 primaries. Like any other person, I started to delve into Barack Obama's life. It turned out that he had lived the ultimate American dream. He attended Harvard much before affirmative action came into play in the 90's. He was also the first black president of Harvard Law Review. In conclusion, this man worked his way up. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Obama chose to become a community organizer in the south side of Chicago. His goal was to help the poor instead of pursuing a career in corporate law. He never used his color as an excuse to reach his ideals and more importantly he broke all racial stereotypes to rise above and beyond. Barack Obama's triumphs and tribulations to get elected in the Illinois state senate spoke for itself. His vision of America was apparent in his message "we are not the red states or the blues states, we are the United States".

Obama's outstanding ability to acknowledge people from all walks of life- rich, poor, gay, straight, black, white, brown, democrats, republicans and independents as Americans is commendable. He openly admitted that he is imperfect and reflected on his mistakes and continues to do so. During those campaign speeches, he not only discussed his policies, but also reminded Americans to move beyond the painful past of slavery and racism. What really moved me was that he chose to shape his life in the absence of his father and reminded black men to be responsible and committed fathers. He stressed that government cannot replace our basic duties as a citizen and we all have to participate as one nation to bring change. And for the first time in history, he inspired young cynical Americans to get involved in politics. This morning, I voted for the first time and I felt good about being a part of this historical election held in this powerful nation. I fulfilled my duty as a citizen for the first time in a nation that gave me better opportunities and hopes for a brighter future. Regardless of the winner in this election, I have realized that change begins from us and it is not only our right, but our duty to vote. Need I say more, "that is change". ---- Indu Menon