Thursday, July 27, 2017

Get, set for the past

On a simplistic level, Sita — Warrior of Mithila — is a reinterpretation of the consort of Lord Ram, giving her character more heft. However, the subtext is deeply political. Not the petty, narrow political wheeling-dealing, but debating the ills that we grapple with, offering us the egalitarian point of view which was the hallmark of our ancient past.

‘Imbalance’ is the core of Amish’s second book in the Ram Chandra Series. And, to address and correct the ‘imbalance’ are the two protagonists and also Vishnu-in-partnership, Ram and Sita. This version tells Sita’s story beginning from the apaharan and then going back to her birth and gurukul, discussions with Guru Vishwamitra, and her skill of archery and wielding the lathi. The warrior in the title is clearly justified and challenges the popular image of Sita as a meek and submissive woman.

In the book, it says that most of our history is oral. And, it is so because it can be changed to suit the changing circumstances of society. So we ask Amish, in which stage of history was Sita’s popular image conceived?

“In the original Valmiki version, Sita is not a warrior. But she is a very strong character. She is very clear about what she wants, she is very clear about what dharma is and will fight for it. The ancient versions of Puranas and the epics tell us that there was equality between men and women. The versions that were written in the late medieval period and onwards painted a less equal relationship. I think that happened because when a society suffers from a lot of violence, it tends to become patriarchal. And, India has faced a lot of violence for the last few centuries,” explains Amish.

He goes on to add that societies become patriarchal because women can compete with men in almost every area, except in the area of violence. “That is because they don’t have too much of testosterone and their bodies are smaller. So they find it difficult. The Arab world today is patriarchal. But 1,200-1,300 years ago, they were actually quite equal.

The Arab world suffered a lot of horrific invasions. Turks and Mongols who destroyed us, went and destroyed them. The Arabs haven’t had independence for more than 700 years and since there was a lot of violence, they have become more patriarchal. We have been a peaceful society for the last 70 years, so it’s time we revived our ancient, more equal society,” he adds.

Equality and meritocracy, the recurring debate in our present socio-political system, finds voice in Sita. These are the issues which Amish is passionate about and so they are woven into his stories. Says he,

“The stories that I write may be set in an ancient era, but I write of things that I am passionate about. And, I am passionate about India. I love my country. To me, true love also means that you point out things which are wrong and have to be improved. We have to speak about the ills which ail our society. I don’t believe in the present caste-system hierarchy based on birth; that’s against our ancient culture. And, so is the inequality between man and woman and inequality between people who are born here. I believe that anyone who is born in the country and wishes to do something for its progress, is ours.”

That’s what the partnership of the two Vishnus — Ram and Sita — also hopes to achieve through their rule. So, who in the present day, can become those Vishnus and lead us on the right path of idealism and pragmatism?

Amish declines a straight answer saying that he has never worn his political beliefs on his sleeve. On being pressed, the authors of The Immortals of Meluha, says, “I never comment on politics and I don’t support any political party openly. But I comment on social issues and I am passionate about India. I believe that we are a lucky generation; it’s not very often that we see a country of this scale rising. We are a lucky generation that’s going to see it and even be a part of it. We will all make our contribution towards it. It’s a privilege.”

In ancient India with which Amish has an affinity, even if the countrymen had differences of opinion, they were welcome because the ultimate goal — the good of the country — mattered. “Accepting someone’s strengths and weakness is a nuanced approach. That’s the ancient Indian way. That’s how it should be now” he says.

This approach also reflects in the book and the way his characters are etched. Ravan, the third book in the Ramchandra Series is already being written. And, will try to show Ravan as a complete person — his intellect, his strength, warrior skills and his fallacies. “The biggest lesson that we can learn from Ravana is to keep our egos in control. In Shaivaite Purana too, a nuanced approach towards Ravana is seen. We can’t be simplistic and believe that Asuras are all dark skinned people with horns. That’s not how Asuras and Devas were described in the Puranas. Asuras were fair-skinned, while the Devas were dark-skinned too. Lord Shiva is touted to be a Dravidian God, but he is fair-skinned. Lord Ram and Lord Krishna are dark skinned. No one is completely black, or white,” Amish makes a point.

So in the next book, do we see him making the biggest revelation — that Sita is Ravan’s daughter? “No...No. There is a Malaysian version that says so. But at least I have not come across any Indian version that says ‘Sita is Ravan’s daughter’,” he clarifies.

But, Amish tells us, and everyone who has read the second book will know, that he has left clues for us to guess Sita’s identity and parentage. “Go through the text and think of Sanskrit roots of various names which hint at deer. What does Mrigasya mean?” Ponder over this readers and you will know if you cracked it when the book on Ravan is out in 2018!

Personal and Political

Omar Zafarullah’s A Hundred Journeys — Stories of My Fatherland is a sane commentary on Pakistan and consequently India too. Born in 1971, the watershed year in Pakistan’s political history, Zafarullah has written about his country, warts and all, for his children to understand where they come from.

A part memoir and part living manual, the book traces his family’s history, its migration from Ropar in Punjab, British India in 1910, to Gojra in the present-day Pakistan.

Zafarullah’s A Hundred Journeys, brought out by Rupa, is an ode to the author’s father and also recalls the indomitable spirit of his grandmother, Maaji, and the British India’s policies, which gave his family a chance to lift themselves out of poverty. Excerpts from an email chat...

Does the title A Hundred Journeys have any reference to Quran? And, why the ‘Stories of my Fatherland?’
The story traces the history of my father’s family; a major incentive for me was to explain better to my kids about my father whom they have never seen; I felt this was something they needed to know in order to complete their perception of who they are. This book is really an indirect ode to my father. Hence, Fatherland.

The title has nothing to do with the Quran. The book has nothing to do with it either. I travel a lot. There is also a chapter called a Hundred Journeys in the book. And there is a line in the book that ‘a hundred journeys began’ towards Gojra when news of my father’s death spread. That is its genesis.

It began as a working title. In the end, Rupa did not give me any time to think of something better and they thought it was fine — so that is that.

In the book, you have said that many of your friends and relatives don’t want to listen to the argument that Taliban is the cause of the nation’s woes. How do you think the book will be received in Pakistan?
Most people had decided that the woes in our country are the result of a grand Western plan to destabilise the world’s only Muslim nuclear power and the Taliban are only a small symptom of this larger disease. So, for most of my friends, the US is the cause of all our woes. I want to know what they will have to say on the book. I have not discussed it with them yet.

I have no idea how the book will be received in Pakistan. I am just as curious as you are about this. I have told my family to be prepared for any outcome. I touch upon some foundational issues which are ingrained in our patriotism. But these are artificial constructs which cannot sustain themselves against the forces of common sense; which will eventually prevail.

Pakistan is in flux. We are constantly trying to figure a way out of our morass. And we will find our way out. This book will be received well when we have figured this out. But that is the future. Today, will this book be received well or will it be disparaged as yet another Western ploy? I cannot tell.

Have your kids, Hyder and Maya, read the book? What’s their feedback?
Maya has read the first page and the dedication. She is seven. She wants me to tell her how my father died. Hyder is reading it now. He is 13. He says he has read about a third and he feels the quality of my writing is up to his standards; if I tried, I could be as good as Rick Riordan, he says. He has given me a small thumbs up for encouragement.

Since these subjects are discussed quite often in our home, I think he has a good idea where the book is going. I will ask him again after he finishes it.

Have you been to Ropar with Hyder and Maya to learn more about your roots?
Nope. I came to Chandigarh for the semi final of the 1996 World Cup of Cricket. My sister has been to Amritsar a few times, but travel to India has dried up in the past decade or so.

The book is about your family’s history in the changing landscape of Pakistan. But there are no pictures of the family or the city/country. Was that deliberate?
Yes it was, now that you mention it. It is quite perceptive of you to bring this out. No photos can quite capture the pictures in the mind; the light and the shadow of memories in the dark.

What is your dream for Pakistan? How do you want it to be for the kids to live in?
Safe. Equal. Free. Jazzy. Confident. Cool.

Would India be of any aid to Pakistan’s well-being?
Of course. Good question. We are fighting India’s fight on its Western borders; A buffer state keeping the insecurity of the Middle East and of Central Asia at bay. India can help Pakistan by ratcheting down its rhetoric; by working jointly on fixing Afghanistan; by affording our politicians the room to negotiate an honourable peace; by allowing democratic Pakistani voices to be heard in Indian cities; by playing Pakistani dramas and music on its media; by allowing more travel. The costs of these moves are small; the gains are manifold.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Emulate these heroes

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the US Consulate General, Mumbai, are organising Green Heroes Film Festival in Mumbai on Tuesday. This programme will recognise individuals and organisations who work relentlessly at grassroots level to protect the environment in their neighbourhood and communities.

As part of this effort, TERI identified Green Heroes in five cities in western India — Ahmedabad, Indore, Mumbai, Panjim and Pune — and enabled up-and-coming storytellers to make films on the initiatives of Green Heroes through workshops in each of these cities. The programme has resulted in 22 insightful, heart-warming short films on the heroes who are working in diverse fields such as forest and water conservation, composting, wildlife protection, waste management and clean energy.

Four of them are from Pune — Jeevit Nadi Foundation, Sunil and Priya Bhide, R Cube, Charity Store and Sharad Shinde from Mawal.

Three Green Heroes share their stories with us:

Cause of a river
A group of Punekars are working to ensure that the Mula-Mutha river and its eco-system thrives and the future generations be a part of it. For the first few years, Punekars, now formed into a group called Jeevit Nadi, spread awareness about the importance of saving our rivers from pollutants. In the following years, along with actual work there has been awareness too.

Shailaja Deshpande of Jeevit Nadi Foundation, says, “From last year, we are concentrating on awareness+action programmes. Our first programme is toxic-free lifestyle and promoting bio-degradable products. Various studies have shown that 70 per cent pollution of Mula-Mutha is domestic, while industrial waste amounts to 30 per cent. This tells us that individuals can rectify the mistake. So now we are meeting with corporates, visiting colleges. We are telling them that there are two bio-degradable products that they can use. One is toilet cleaners and another is floor cleaners. This will reduce the pollution and also reduce the load on Sewage Treatment Plans (STPs).”

The members are also promoting Mission Ground Water actively in Aundh, Pashan, Baner areas. Plus they are also networking with other organisations to drive this cause.

“The second awareness+action programme is building an app, which will tell people who are buying land, to know whether it falls under Blueline and Redline areas (areas which encroach on the river bed),” adds Deshpande.

Their third action plan is ‘adopt a stretch’. “If the river/ stream/ rivulet flows through your neighbourhood, people should come together to start a clean-up activity. We want people — individuals, corporates, Ganesh mandals and temple trusts — to take ownership of that particular stretch,” she explains.

The foundation also focuses on riparian vegetation. Riparian vegetation means the grass, bushes, shrubs, trees that grow alongside the river bank. “This vegetation is the association between ground and water. It recharges ground water and provides support to the river body,” adds Deshpande. Next, the members have also approached schools to include ‘river’ in their curriculum. “That means, the students can study the river and its eco-system. Make projects which will be a part of their science and environment subject. The students will thus be involved with their eco-system,” she points out.
(The film is called Jeevit Nadi)

The urban agriculturists
The outside temperature hovers between 40 and 42 degrees Centigrade. But inside the home of Priya Bhide, it’s 3-4 degrees cooler. It’s all due to the efforts of the Bhide family, who enjoy physical labour, and therefore do not have TV and AC installed in their home. Says Bhide, “We are urban agriculturists. More like waste managers. We collect dry leaves, vegetable waste, segregate them, create compost and use it for our plants on terrace. This is our main season of work — from November to May. Our neighbours send us some 20 gunny sacks filled with leaves and waste. We haul it up to our terrace. That’s our idea of enjoyment. We enjoy physical labour.”

Priya Bhide’s terrace garden is teeming with vegetables
The former physiotherapist, Bhide, currently, is involved in guiding people who want to set up similar gardening, composting or waste management projects.

“Many people in Bhandarkar Road and nearby areas are into urban agriculture. Then, there are people from other cities, who too want to change their lifestyles for the better and need tips. I make presentations, attend phone calls, reply to emails and also write for a Marathi daily on how to create your own green corner,” she adds.

Bhide has taken up waste management and gardening project on a bigger scale, but her advice to beginners is to take baby steps. “You feel reassured and satisfied only when you see results. And, that takes time,” says she.

Constantly innovating and following a green lifestyle, the Bhides use drained water for their terrace garden. “Every year, we hear and read stories of drought and water scarcity. We require a good amount of water for our terrace gardens. So we collect drained water from the bathroom, washbasins in a storage tank. We pull it up to the terrace via a pump, where it’s filtered and then used to water the plants. In this way, we use about 1000 litres of drained water for our garden,” explains Bhide.

She also points out that they haven’t faced any problems because of their large terrace garden — no mosquito menace, etc. “Only before monsoon, we ensure that the drains at home are not choked with leaves,” she adds.
(The film on Sunil and Priya Bhide is called Green Soil)

Don’t be a consumerist
A father, waiting to pick up his daughter from a birthday party, to kill time, enters a mall. A few minutes later, he walks out with a shopping bag, filled with items worth Rs 800. That man is architect Prashant Shah.

Someone who is always conscious about energy issue, Shah was stunned with his impulsive shopping. “I didn’t need half the stuff that I bought. That happens with most of us. Strategically placed eye-catching objects in a mall or store lure us and we end up buying them. We hoard stuff in our cupboards and wardrobes and then they are hauled up to the loft because of lack of space,” explains Shah.

That incident and two other connected episodes set Shah thinking. And, he started Rcube, a Charity Store, which believes in Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

“I was once giving a lecture and quoted a principle of Jainism — Aparigraha — which means ‘less is more’. It means that what is in excess should be given away, shared, distributed. A lady in the audience asked, ‘Give it away where, to whom?’ That set me thinking. And, then when I was travelling in the UK, I came across many charity stores on high streets. The West is admirably ahead of us in ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ philosophy,” he says.

Five years ago, Shah started Rcube in Mayur Colony. “People can donate clothes, books, toys, appliances in good condition. And, those who can’t afford actual goods, can buy them from this store at nominal price,” adds Shah.

His only wish is that more such stores open up in Pune, so that the gap between the haves and have-nots is bridged. To this effect, Shah sends a WhatsApp message every Saturday to his group. For instance, he says, how a t-shirt is manufactured. He provides a graphic of the assembly line — from where the cotton is produced to the end product. “There is so much of energy and cost involved. We can’t afford to turn a blind eye to this. Do you really need 40 pair of shoes? Or 50 pairs of shirts and trousers? Think about it,” he concludes.
(The film on Prashant Shah and Rcube is called Aparigriha)

‘She never flickered as a human being’

Photojournalist Raghu Rai’s camera trailed Mother Teresa for five decades. In his pictorial biography, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, you get to see the iconic images of the lady who was mother to all

The diminutive figure draped in a white saree with a blue border was a personification of compassion and love. She continues to be so even after her death. In his pictorial biography, Saint Teresa of Calcutta — A Celebration of Her Life & Legacy, (brought out by Aleph Book Company) photojournalist Raghu Rai captures the story of Mother Teresa and the work of Missionaries of Charity.

Rai’s camera was a witness to the daily and eventful happenings in the life of Mother and did its job faithfully, adhering to instructions of Mother — to respect the dignity of the poorest of the poor.

Divided into three sections — The Canonization of Mother Teresa, Her Life and Work and Her Legacy, the book also has an appendix with a chronology of events in Mother’s life.

The book, which is scattered with quotes of Mother, doesn’t have captions. Says Rai, “The book doesn’t give individual captions to the pictures because they are fairly self-explanatory. I also feel a successful picture doesn’t need any crutches, any words to explain itself.”

Excerpts from the conversation:
It was in 1970s that you first met Mother Teresa. Can you remember the moment?
In 1970, one of my editors at Statesman, Desmond Doig — a very prolific writer, designer, artist — rang me up in Delhi saying, “Raghu, I have met a great lady. And you have to come and photograph her.” I had a lot of respect for Desmond, his understanding, so I went to Calcutta and I met Mother Teresa in 1970.

The best part is that the Mother I met in 1970 and the Mother who left us in 1997 was the same ordinary, compassionate, loving mother. She never flickered as a human being. For me, her spiritual powers never dimmed.

How did you establish a connection with her? For someone who was so involved with her mission, did she find your camera intrusive?
Yes, she found my camera intrusive. Always. That was the only problem I had with her. After I had taken a few pictures, she would look at me and say, ‘Oh, I think you have taken enough pictures.’ How could I tell her that they were not enough?

When I turned up after a few months to take more photos, she would say, ‘You have come again. But we are in prayer’. So then I told her, ‘Mother, you have your way of praying. My way of praying is when I take pictures and capture the magic.’ She replied, ‘Oh dear, it’s nice. Do your work’.

You formed a lifelong association with her. Did that lead to exchange of confidences?
Mother was an open book and she did what she thought was necessary for the most ordinary, poorest of poor. But sometimes, she would wonder, ‘Oh my God! There is so much to do and I don’t have so much strength and resources to serve Him’. We never discussed personal lives.

What were your impressions of Calcutta as seen by the Mother?
In the book, there are several pages devoted to life in Calcutta — images of people sleeping in the open; one topless woman sitting in the middle of a street. The poverty was visible on footpath, on streets. These scenes disturbed her and inspired her to do what she did. Calcutta was the place which ignited her compassion and to do seva of the poorest of the poor. Toh yeh saari batein mein Mother ke saath jiya hua hun.

Abroad, people think of India as a land that has ailing and malnourished people, especially from the photographs that are showcased there. In your book, have you portrayed the ailing and suffering in a different light?
You know, people come with different sets of ideas and you can’t really challenge the understanding that they have of India. One thing which Mother told me in the beginning was: ‘Please remember one thing Raghu Rai, when you take pictures, the dignity and respect of the poorest of the poor has to be reflected in them. Unless you portray the sensitivity and care that we are giving them, in the images, you can’t shoot pictures when they are lying naked, filthy and painful’.

Have you gone back to Missionaries of Charity and seen the present-day work?
Before Mother was canonised, I was in Calcutta and I spent time visiting her Homes all over the city again. I was surprised to find that they were run more efficiently. Also, the presence of Mother was everywhere; in the sense that some portrait of Mother is looking down at you from the wall; there is her statue or bust. There were also some pictures that I had clicked.

I went to Old People’s Home in Kalighat and there was Mother. I went to Children’s Home — Shishu Bhavan and I see a statue of Mother, looking down at the babies. Then I went to Prem Dan where the leprosy patients are hosted. Her statue was there. I have photographed her Homes, showing her presence everywhere.

How many photographs went into the book? What sort of archival methods did you employ?
The book is about 150 pages and it has 130 photographs or so. I am not a very good archival person, but luckily, some of the important negatives were kept away, in safe place. So thanks to digital technology, we scanned and touched them, and they were then ready to print.

Did the newsworthy images go into the book?
No, it’s not really news images or journalistic images. But more humane photographs, that bring out the suffering of the ordinary people and the concern of the Mother and Missionaries of Charity for them.

When you heard about her demise, what thoughts crowded your mind?
When she passed away, in September 1997, it was pouring that day and the next day as well. But thousands of people stood in the queue to have her last darshan. Because she was Mother to all. Some people might say she was Christian and bringing more people into her faith, but the love and care she gave and the way she touched the hearts of everybody, it was quite touching to watch.

A toast to the coast

For someone who takes a long time in opening up, chatting up random people in the queue while boarding the ferry from Dabhol-Dhopave and then to Tawsal-Jaigad, surprisingly became easy. Away from prying, judgemental eyes, it seemed perfectly natural to lie down in the shade of a shut kirana shop or walk barefoot on the cool grass. Sitting on a blue tarpulin sheet under a makeshift bamboo roof, it was easier to understand a farm hand’s woes about the ‘winter’ in Konkan which spoils the fruit crop.

Two Health Departments workers wait for passengers with kids at Tavsal jetty

These impromptu halts, while doing a l00-km run on a daily basis for six days along the coastal Maharashtra, were postcards to myself; the images were familiar, but they were dipped in different hues. When you are working in a newsroom, you are inundated mostly with stats and a not-so-rosy picture of the world around you. This is not to say that what we saw during this trip from Alibaug to Goa was free of dark clouds. However, they mostly came with a silver lining.

The village kids show us their catch -- the crabs -- which they are going to sell at the market

The journey
While travelling to Dive Agar, to join the cyclists whom I was assisting on their ride, I boarded an MSRTC bus from Swargate. After a certain point, I chaffed at the bus’ slow speed, its frequent halts, until it struck me that it wasn’t easy driving the bus around the winding ghats with four-wheelers racing down from the opposite direction. Amongst my companions in the bus were students from Mangaon, Shrivardhan etc, who were studying in Pune. For them and all those village folk who had to visit Pune for work, the bus was their only link with the city.

Later, when I was following the cyclists in the back-up car, we spotted a few boats at a picturesque spot. I alighted from the car, to take a few pics. A lad came running (perhaps to join his friends). When I asked if I could click his photo, he was thrilled and although I couldn’t share it because it was clicked on an SLR camera, he was happy to see his image, exclaiming to his friends, “Aye! Maza photo aala bagh!”

He and his merry friends then decided to treat me and a friend with crabs. “Take a look!” they urged. The group of kids was going to sell the crabs at the market.

At the jetty, we met two women from the state health department. The jetty was their halt to administer polio drops to babies who were holidaying with their parents. At the arrival of each ferry, they would single out parents with babies, administer the drops to the tots, while cooing and consoling them. It was work and we don’t know if it was pleasure to them.

The experiences
On the way to Achara, while waiting for the cyclists to show up, I dozed off on the veranda of a shop, but was not completely oblivious to the happenings around. A group of school girls was cackling away at the bus stop, without bothering to discuss the ‘stranger’ in their midst. None of the two-wheeler commuters slowed down, no catcalls.

On waking up, my eyes fell on a blackboard announcing ‘Dashavtar’ festival, a traditional theatrical performance based on the Puranas which is one of the interesting features of Konkan. It was organised by autorickshaw owners of Munge village. Dish and Cable TV has its own charm, but getting together and watching a theatrical performance gets the entire village grooving. May be, I shall make time for it the next time I go visiting.

On the last leg of our journey, things could have gone haywire. That day, all the shops, restaurants were shut in Sindhudurg district. A meeting of the merchants was on in a neighbouring town and to show their solidarity, all the shop owners had downed their shutters. We managed to convince one ‘dada’ of Parule village to open his chai-nashta dukan and feed us hot Vadas, steaming cups of chai and Konkani Misal. He served this with a toothless grin and a 1 rupee coin stuffed in his left ear.

In Vengurle, another 60 km away, Ashok Vengurlekar offered to prepare maase thali (fish thali) for the cyclists who were due to reach in an hour or so. Vengurlekar also went out of his way to help this writer send an important email. The internet cafes there were shut, so the guy offered us his relative’s scooter and asked us to follow him to the tehsildar’s office. Unfortunately, there was network problem. Not giving up, the gentleman asked a printer friend of his to let us use his computer and send the mail.

It’s gestures like these that make India incredible and leave you with warm memories of the place made special by unselfish people.

One with the tribe

What makes a home? The people, of course. And also the surroundings. Can a house made of cement and concrete find itself in harmony with the greenery around in a forested area? Not really. Gone are the days when every region had its unique architecture, suiting the landscape and lending it an exclusivity. For instance, Konkan was known for its chiryachi ghara (red brick houses) and Marathwada for its dhabyachi ghara (flat-roofed houses). Now, these structures are few and far between. Cement and glass constructions have mushroomed both in rural and urban landscapes. We have gone wrong trying to bring in a ‘homogeneous’ look, and, more importantly, ignoring the region’s climatic conditions.

The house of a farmer at Palsunda village which won the Design Jatra team HUDCO prize
It was this which acted as a trigger point for architect Pratik Dhanmer when he returned to his village Murbad near Dahanu. “My village consists of 70 houses. In the past, we relied on traditional architecture — like using karvy (reed grass) and bamboo to build them. They grew in plenty in our region. However, in the new constructions, cement was being used. When I objected to it, a villager pointed out, ‘You have lived in a cement house in Mumbai for several years. You have consumed natural resources far more than us. Who are you to tell us where we should live or not?’ That hurt me. But it was also the truth,” explains Dhanmer.

He and his architect friend Shardul Patil, who also hailed from the same region, decided to renovate the latter’s home using traditional architecture. They are now in the process of building Dhanmer’s home using karvy and red bricks. “My old home was 100 per cent made of karvy. In the new construction, the walls and partitions are made of karvy and wood, while the columns are made of red bricks. The foundation is of mud,” he adds.

Dhanmer, Patil and their two friends Anuradha Wakde and Vinita Chiragiya form the core team of Design Jatra — an architectural firm, adhering to Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. They are all students of Rachana Sansad’s Academy of Architecture, Mumbai.

Work ethics
Dhanmer cites Gandhi’s conversation with architect Laurie Baker on how we should ideally be using the material available within a five km radius of the construction site. “However, we are finding it difficult to construct houses using material within a five km radius. So we have extended it to 20-25 km radius. We are primarily a tribal village, so we want our construction to meet their needs. A tribal earns Rs 200 as daily wages. So how can he pay Rs 350 for a bag of cement? He then gets caught in a debt trap. Plus, cement curing requires a lot of water. We don’t have enough water resources, so the process of cement curing isn’t done properly. That results in poor quality construction and in a year or two, the houses collapse,” he adds.

Tribal life
Having observed the tribals closely in Jawahar and Palghar districts (near Mumbai), Dhanmer and his friends realised that their work shouldn’t disrupt their natural way of life. “The tribals have an organic way of living. They toil in the fields and live in homes made of mud, bricks and stones which are available in plenty. They live in close proximity to nature. So why burden them with extra funds?” he asks.

The Design Jatra: (from left) Shardul Patil, Anuradha Wakde, Vinita Chiragiya and Pratik Dhanmer
City-based architect, Mayukh Gosavi, who has also collaborated with Design Jatra in the past, says, “The walls of tribal homes are made of kud or karvy. The dried, long, slender reeds are woven into a mat, which becomes a wall panel. Over this panel a thin layer of mud and cow dung is applied. Cow dung stabilises the structure. In about two years, the wall partitions decay. Instead of wasting them, the tribals use them in the field, where it decomposes into manure. This manure is used in growing crop.”

The tribals are also fond of their animals and want to live in close proximity to them. And, unlike us urban dwellers, they are not comfortable with the idea of toilets at home. “I think their needs and beliefs have to reflect in the architecture. The Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (PMAY earlier known as Indira Awaas Yojana) didn’t take these realities into account,” adds Gosavi.

The Design Jatra team was appointed as sub-consultant to PMAY and they have also signed a contract with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to build low-cost houses within a limited budget. “PMAY offers Rs 1 lakh for the beneficiary — families living below poverty line. If we use modern technology, they get a 267 or 270 sq ft (approx) house. Most villagers are reluctant to live in small homes. Plus, many districts in Maharashtra are drought-prone. So cement construction is doomed from the beginning. A farmer in Palsunda village had approached us with his brief of building a small house, but not like the ones constructed under the government scheme. So we used mud, bricks from his old home, and brick and mortar locally available and constructed the house. Many of his neighbours too joined in, thus making it a community project,” explains Gosavi.
“The house,” adds Dhanmere, “gave us the second prize from HUDCO for designing low cost houses. That was a start we were looking for and now we have built six such 1,500 sq ft houses.”

The team members of Design Jatra, who call themselves ‘social architects’, have turned their attention to creating sustainable living. “We have realised that people are not averse to the old way of living. It’s just that the resources are dying, because of ignorance and lack of dependency on them. There is no good utilisation of wood, because forests are being cut down. So we formed two self-help groups in the village and have been encouraging villagers to turn to community farming, steering them away from using chemical fertilisers and eventually taking up forestation. This is our long-term plan,” says Dhanmer.

The group has also coordinated with Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF) and procured 50 native rice varieties to be grown by the villagers. They are also working on a native seed bank and motivating village women for backyard farming.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Border-line syndrome

The news of Indian soldiers mutilated by the Pakistani army has set off a fresh wave of protests among the countrymen. The daughter of Head Constable of Border Security Force, Prem Sagar, wants 50 Pakistanis to be beheaded as revenge for her father’s death. A long round of Pakistan bashing and war-hate will occupy the news space for a few days to come. In the midst of this, a few peaceniks, like Tehmina Dadyseth, will try to talk about people and humanism.

Before the hate mail for Tehmina starts, here’s a disclaimer. She is the heroine of Anuja Chauhan’s Baaz, a war romance, if one can categorise it. Daughter of a retired General, Tehmina aka Tinka, doesn’t support war. Her love interest, Ishaan Faujdaar (Shaanu), is a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. Quite like ‘maverick’ (Tom Cruise in Top Gun), he believes in his duty to the nation. Until his and Tinka’s views clash and, make us, the readers, squirm.

Unlike her other books, which too had an element of conflict in the plotline, Chauhan’s Baaz is different. It captures the spirit of what is happening now. Around us. The war hyperbole, nationalism and patriotism debate is in the book, with an insight into what the armed forces think about the conflicts across the border.

Set around the 1971 Indo-Pak war (Liberation of Bangladesh), Baaz makes you yearn for love and think of the world as one.

Excerpts from conversation with the author:
When did you actually write the book? It reminded us of Gurmehar Kaur controversy and the nationalism debate which is being discussed, dissented now.
I actually put fingers to keyboard in February 2016. And finished the first draft on November 30 of the same year. Then, there was some editing feedback and consultation with a military expert. So, yes, it happened before the whole Gurmehar blow-up, but I think those concerns have been very much a part of our national debate in the last couple of years. In fact, those issues are always relevant, aren’t they? Rabindranath Tagore believed that there is something higher than the concept of National Identity and that is Humanity.

Which side of the debate are you on?
I believe very strongly in speaking softly and carrying a big stick. The defence services are our big stick — it’s important that they be absolutely battle-ready at every moment — fit, trained, highly motivated, well-armed and well-provisioned. But it’s equally important that we deal with our neighbours with kindness and mutual respect.

Did the tone write out itself? Was it going to be a love story between Indian Air Office officer and a Pakistani girl?
No, there was never any Pakistani girl! This is a book about India and Indians — the soul-searching we all go through as citizens and soldiers. The central conflict, the thing that attracted me to this setting, was the differences between the ideologies of Tinka and Shaanu. She, who has seen the havoc war can wreak (her brother is a dead fauji) is essentially a pacifist and he, a boy from a small Haryana village, totally seduced by the sexy flying machines of his dreams and can’t wait to go to war.

And, how does it feel to be back with HarperCollins after a fling with Westland?
It feels great — I loved Westland too — they have two of my books (The Zoya Factor and The House that BJ built), and also all my titles in six Indian languages. The quest is always to find a wider audience, and that again, is what has bought me back to Harper at the moment.