Wednesday, 11 October 2017

My short story (fiction) The White Envelope published in Kitaab on 11 October 2017

Sameera baji rushed down the narrow steep stairs of the building, her sandals going ‘clap clap’ with every step she descended, ignoring the pain in her knees that morning when every other day she cried out curses for the anonymous builder who planted these, what she called, ‘high rise stairs.’
She tore down the stairs of the scraggy yellow building calling out to her friend who lived in a small plot of land right across. Ameena baji! Ameena baji! Did you hear?
Ameena baji came out of the two-room humble dwelling into the courtyard and looked up. Thank God her husband had not succumbed to the lucrative temptation of selling their little plot of land to builders who have built stiff ugly buildings all over Shaheen Bagh such that if one wanted to stare at the sky, only a strip of it would peer through the mesh of buildings, or one would have to climb up to a terrace. But from Ameena baji’s house, one had the luxury to stare at a good patch of the sky from the ground – a rectangular piece of blue that soared above the pale yellow and grey buildings towering over her little plot of land.
There she saw Sameera baji at one corner of the second floor landing, leaning against the intricately carved black railing and looking down excitedly. The tenants living on that floor had tied a thick yellow synthetic rope above the railing from which hung a purple bed sheet with huge red and white flowers merging with each other, still moist. Sameera baji was so excited that she did not even push the bed sheet to the side. She stood there looking down at Ameena baji’s courtyard, the moist bed sheet clinging to her back.
What? Ameena baji cried out.
Did you get the white envelope? Sameera baji asked with a strange gleam in her eyes.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

How Hard Is It To Exit Prostitution? (Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 18 August 2017)

Two days ago, Noor Bai (name changed) was attacked by her daughter's father-in-law and mother-in-law. She was beaten, her clothes were ripped, and her thin as reed seven month pregnant daughter received blows on her protruding belly. The whole of Perna Basti in Dharampura, beyond Dwarka in Delhi NCR, had gathered outside her house. But no one called the police.
In some time, Noor Bai called up Khushboo at Apne Aap Women Worldwide. She just said, help me, I am being attacked. We at Apne Aap dialled 100 and requested that the police be sent to her house immediately. It took exactly an hour for us to reach Dharampura from Anand Niketan. Outside Noor Bai's house, there was a big crowd but no sign of the police. When we contacted the police again, they said they had gone to help the victim but were sent away by the crowd with the word that it was a matter of the biradari (community) and the biradari would settle it. The police told us that this is how it always is at the Perna Basti in Dharampura.
When Noor Bai saw us, she seemed relieved and her daughter's in-laws withdrew from the scene. We asked her to come with us and file an FIR at the police station. But all those gathered would just not let her leave with us. They blocked her way and used all means to deter her from taking this step - they used threat, plea, emotional blackmailing and what not. Someone even said that her daughter's father-in-law would be nominated as the pradhan (chief) of the caste panchayat this year and so she ought to be careful.
(Read the rest of the story at

Sunday, 2 April 2017

An evening with extraordinary women at Sonagachi, Kolkata. 2 April 2017.

I was in Kolkata yesterday to attend a consultation on the Child Labour Act, at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences which is located in the Salt Lake neighbourhood. In the evening, I visited the Apne Aap Women Worldwide Khidirpur and Sonagachi offices to say hello to my extraordinary colleagues. Khidirpur is close to the red light area Munshiganj and Sonagachi is one of Asia's biggest red light areas. Traveling from Salt Lake to Khidirpur and Sonagachi seemed like travelling to a different lifetime.

One of Asia's biggest red light areas - Sonagachi, Kolkata. 2 April 2017.

The tram line at Sonagachi and a man pulling a rickshaw (the blur on the left), even today.

I pose with the extraordinary Apne Aap women at the Apne Aap Sonagachi centre.

Celebrated writer Baby Haldar, who is a former domestic help. She is a prolific writer and her autobiography Aalo Aandhari, which shot her to fame in 2006, has been translated into several languages. She runs the Apne Aap Sonagachi centre with Rumki. 

The ever cheerful Rumki :)

The very talented Keya and Payal. They will both appear in an upcoming film 'Love Sonia,' directed by Tabrez Noorani. The film is based on true stories around sex trafficking. Keya and Payal play real life in reel life.

Sahani Di, who has dedicated her life to changing the lives of the children of prostituted women, outside the Sonagachi Apne Aap centre. Everyone at Sonagachi calls her 'Ma.' She tells me stories of how she befriended the women in Munshiganj and Sonagachi by getting them and their children come to the Apne Aap centres to take baths and wash their clothes because in these parts of the city, bathrooms and water are forever a problem.

The dynamic trio. Baby Haldar told me when I was leaving that I should come again and we should have a good 'adda' session where we discuss literature, lives, music, and films. I promised her I will come again for a longer time.

Looking outside from the Apne Aap Sonagachi centre

Walls of the centre

This is Uma at the Apne Aap Khidirpur centre. As a child, she used to come to the Apne Aap centre at Munshiganj where Sahana di used to run a learning centre for the children of prostituted women. Uma also used to stay back at this centre in the night, with several other girls from the area. Uma told me that for some five - six years, their mothers made them stay back at the Apne Aap night shelter to protect them from traffickers and pimps. 'This centre here is my home,' she told me about the Khidirpur centre, 'I have grown up here. I have had several skill training here, including how to use the machines for making sanitary napkins.' Uma has been running the Apne Aap sanitary napkin making unit for a few years now.

A poster outside the Apne Aap Khidirpur centre

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Toasting Renu in Forbesganj with firebrand women, songs against patriarchy, and memories!

Yesterday, in Forbesganj, as people moved with hurried feet placing floor cushions, chairs and putting up posters and photographs at the Jagdish Mill Compound office of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, the weather decided to contribute its bit by sending across a lovely breeze to add to the celebratory mood. After all, Phaneshwar Nath Renu's birth anniversary was being celebrated. Renu, who wrote for and about the people and land in this part of the country. Who wrote for the casteless as well as those whose generations were ruined by Caste. Who wrote about love and rebellion in the same breath. 

As journalist Nivedita Shakeel said while interacting with everyone yesterday, Renu understood that one cannot be a rebel without the ability to love deeply.

The stage is all set. Celebrating Renu's birth anniversary on 4 March 2017 at the Apne Aap centre in Forbesganj with a conversation between Ruchira Gupta and Girindra Nath Jha. Ruchira is an abolitionist activist, journalist, academic, writer, and founder of Apne Aap. Girindra Nath Jha is a journalist, writer and farmer.  

It was for the first time that Renu's birth anniversary was being celebrated at the Jagdish Mill Compound. Ruchira Gupta, at whose family house the event was held (where even the Apne Aap office is), has been reading letters exchanged between her uncle Birju Babu and Renu these days. These letters and some photographs of Renu in this house have been preserved by her father Vidyasagar Gupta, who never thought that some day his daughter would bring them out to a larger world. 

Renu looms large over displayed copies of his letters to Birju Babu at the exhibition yesterday

Keeping memories and the stories alive was the idea behind yesterday's event. As journalist-writer-farmer Girindra Nath Jha told to some seventy people present at the gathering that when he first came to meet Ruchira here at this house, he felt as if the ghosts of extraordinary men and women were walking down its corridors, whispering to him. It might be true. For every time I walk along the corridor and through the rooms, looking at the photographs on the walls, I feel as if the people in those photographs might become animate any moment in their eagerness to tell me what happened all those years ago.

Ruchira opened the conversation by talking about how Renu did not separate women from nature, from the land, from the rivers when he wrote. Like their stories seamlessly came together in their journeys and fates. But what I liked most is the legend she narrated, as captured in Renu's 'Parti Parikatha.' Renu addresses the river Kosi as 'mayya' (mother) and writes of how she grew up being cursed ('kos,' 'kosna' - I think that's how the river must have got its name, if I go by this legend). And then when she got married, there came a time when she fled from her in-law's house to light a lamp in her mother's name at a temple in Malda (Ruchira later told me that this temple still exists). What I found fascinating is the existence of a space like this where a married woman can honor her mother or keep her ties with her mother alive. Especially because in Bihar, like most of north India, a married woman means she has severed all ties with her maternal house.     

People start coming by 2 pm

Tinku Khanna (director of Apne Aap) welcoming trade union leader Kamayani Swami of Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan and journalist and writer Nivedita Shakeel.

Vidyasagar ji started the afternoon event by welcoming everyone and remembering the days when the house at this Jagdish Mill compound also used to be home for Phaneshwar Nath Renu on several occasions. 

Renu's old friends and acquaintances in the audience

Vidyasagar ji spoke as the exhibition in the background stood testimony to his stories about Renu, drawn from memory. 

The conversation started with Roshanara reading to the audience a short story by Renu. Fabulous work!

Fatima, activist with Apne Aap, has put several traffickers in Araria in jail, including the most dreaded Gainul. She is from the Nat community, a freed/denotified tribe which practices inter generational prostitution, subjecting girls of ten - twelve years to prostitution. She fought the system within her family and is now fighting it in her community,   

Meena, another Apne Aap activist in Forbesganj, is a prostitution survivor who works relentlessly to help women with choices in life, to help them understand that at ten or twelve years of age prostitution cannot be a choice for girls. Her story has been captured in the film 'Meena' by The Sibbs and Lucy Lui.

As Nivedita Shakeel said to the audience, thanks to women before us and with us, we can tell our stories! Thanks to their courage, their efforts! She spoke of how women writing was not quite a thing in the past. How even in Rabindra Nath Tagore's house, his sister who wrote so well wasn't acknowledged or encouraged. And why because this was the case, women in the old days scribbled on the kitchen walls where they were mostly confined. 

Roshanara dreams of learning the harmonium and singing along with it some day. Young hearts. Dreams.

Sanju ji, who runs Apne Aap's Uttari Rampur centre in Forbesganj, listened intently as Roshanara read out the story. Sanju ji has tutored many girls at the centre, some of whom have finished school and have attended or are attending college. Like Roshanara. 

A shy Roshanara as people complimented her wonderful reading of Renu's short story. 

Ruchira referred to Renu's 'Parti Parikatha' (published in 1957) where he has written about a land in Araria as 'parti' (barren). There was a curse, she said, Renu mentioned this in the book. No one would dare attempt cultivating the land or settling down there. Today, she said, after sixty years since the book was written, there are houses in that very land and a school run by the Government of Bihar and Apne Aap for girls from vulnerable communities. An indication of how it takes just one step of courage to overcome curses.  

Girindra Nath Jha spoke of Renu and his reportage as an inspiration in his career as a journalist and how now he has come back to the village after years of city life to become a farmer and create a culturally vibrant village with his Chanka Residency - a residency for artists.

The exhibition space where photographs of Renu with Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Baba Nagarjun, Ruchira's father Vidyasagar Gupta, and her uncle Birju Babu were displayed.

Tanmay and Sohini,  facing the house that holds many memories related to the Nepal democracy movement, abolition of Zaminadri in Bihar, etc.  

There are so many stories etched all over the house. And they keep tumbling out. Like yesterday, after dinner, as Vidyasagar ji, Ruchira, Tinku and I sat chatting, Vidyasagar ji enthralled us with one tale after another about Renu and other writer friends. Their idiosyncrasies, love stories and ideologies. He also told us about how during the Nepal democracy movement, Girija Prasad Koirala, who was a close friend of Birju Babu (Vidyasagar ji's elder brother), and his comrades stayed at this very house in Forbesganj and planned the hijack of an aeroplane that was carrying money from the Nepal treasury. Vidyasagar ji also told us how the comrades of the Nepal democracy movement used the bathroom, in a corner far away from the house, as the wireless centre! 

The photo gallery 

Vidyasagar ji and Girindra Nath Jha with flautist Shambhu Mishra ji.

Ruchira and Nivedita Shakeel catch up at the exhibition space

Ruchira, Vidyasagar ji, Girindra Nath Jha with Phaneshwar Nath Renu's son Dakshineshwar Roy and Renu Verma.

Capturing the photographer. Saurav :)

Sanju ji interacting with Girindra Nath Jha

Blogger Chinmaya seen here interacting with Phaneshwar Nath Renu's son, Dakshineshwar Roy 

A group photo!
Ruchira's mother, Rajni ji, in the audience
Subhan ji and Shaukat :)

Jaikishore ji who has been an accountant at the Jagdish Mill Compound since it's very early days, for over forty-fifty years now.

Tinku Khanna and Praveen ji happy with themselves with an event so well organised!

Kamayani Swami and her activist friends from Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan ended the event with a strong message against patriarchy through a song. 

My short story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018

My short  story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018 Right in the middle of the sprawling Nakhasa Bazaa...