Monday, May 27, 2013

A theoretical memoir from Benaras

When I was leaving for benaras, my mom strictly told me not to buy statues of God in large number. I was also advised to visit kasha vishwanath temple. Benaras, in popular view, is almost synonymous with “Religion”.  In my imagination as well, Benaras was a small city with temples, aghori babas and a gypsie culture(“hare ram hare Krishna” culture). I knew that I’ll see a lot of Durkheim in this place. Benaras would be exciting. It did turn out to be exciting but not so predictable. Every moment spent was a different experience. Besides Durkheim, I met a lot of other known sociologist and also found theoretical food which is yet to be served. 

As we stepped out of the station, I looked back to see the station and found religion in the very architecture of the main railway station. It revealed how the city wanted to present itself. It was presenting itself not just as a religious city but essentially as a “Hindu” city. The ‘secular’ in me, however, did not have a problem with it. Benaras is known to be a sacred city for Hindus.

As we moved towards our guest house, I was trying to grab the new environment and I saw, though not much to my surprise, an over-emphasis on religion. Religion was there in the names of the shops – “kuber optics”, “swastika tailors”, “shivam chashma Kendra” etc. Again, the names were essentially hindu. However, I did find some “modern” names and a few with muslim names – “Islam auto engineering”. I also saw a church, a jain temple and Sikhism on a motor bike. So I wouldn’t narrow down to one religion but I would definitely say that it was all heavy with religion. The architecture of the main university – Benaras Hindu University was also in the form of a temple. The entrance was that of a gateway of a temple. There was also a temple within the campus. It was too much of “religion” for me.

This trip to benaras was a field trip. We had come to try and find ‘answers’ to two sociological questions concerning Buddhist site of sarnath, 15 kms away from Benaras – religious syncretism in Buddhist sarnath and the concept of a religious economy. But since we stayed in Benaras, we extended our research(‘unofficially’) to Benaras. I was a part of the group exploring religious syncretism. What I found was that religious syncretism is a ‘historical’ process. It is historical in the sense that religions have interacted with each other historically and almost, ‘naturally’. They have interacted for centuries and still do, instead of dying out. Religion and religious identity is very strong. And this is when I saw Durkheim. Religion is a social fact. It is inevitable. It exists and will always exist.

The second group had explored the link between religion and economy. They found that there was definitely a deep bond between the two. Religion sells in Benaras. So the Hindu shopkeeper in Sarnath worshipped Buddha because Buddhism meant livelihood for him. Religion is also commercialized to a large extent in Benaras. A temple on the ghat bore the advertisement of Rupa, a company for underclothes. Near any temple, we would be called out by shopkeepers asking us to buy goods “important” for puja. They would tell us how the puja would be incomplete without them and would sell them at exorbitant rates. In the holy Ganga, we saw “muthoot finance” and “airtel” flowing.  Here, we would get the impression how religion affects economy.

Roaming on the streets of Benaras at night, eating street food, observing people who seemed ‘less liberal’, chewing on the local paan and then going back on the rickshaw…it seemed ‘ideal’. Roaming about in the campus in the moonlight, with wind flowing in your hair, it is a romantic memory now. I feel like Marx…romanticizing incessantly about the ‘pre-industrial’ society. But Benaras has also been changing. The economy has been changing, though not at a very great speed as there were no factories there. But things have been changing. ‘Modernity’ is coming in but it co-exists with tradition. A peaceful co-existence is taking place. So I saw a monk, with a jacket added to his traditional attire, smoking ‘peacefully’.

Another thing which was though predictable for me about Benaras was the people. In contrast to the “big bad world” of Delhi, I found that people here were more friendly or maybe this was just my good fortune. But one thing which is certain is that people here were much more affiliated to their caste and region. So one of my classmates who was from Chapra was an instant hit with most people. I accord this to the fact that maybe this is because economic changes are not very rapid in Benaras. There are not many of Marx’s industries to alienate men from themselves and from each other. I feel that maybe Durkheim’s religion may also be a reason. Religion leads to social solidarity. It binds people and even checks on them.  Though a thug for whom I wrote a letter in English wherein he pleads with foreigners to help him financially does force me to re-think.

Overall, I would say that it’s really difficult to explain this city with just one theory. It is difficult to do that for any place, situation but Benaras particularly has been a difficult case. With order and disorder(aghori cult), orthodoxy and syncretism, economy and social values, I feel that it is difficult to really say what goes around in benaras, how things work here. It is tradition and it is ‘modern’. It is communal harmony and communal clash. It is conservative and it is liberal. Benaras… it is simple but contradictory.

Theoretically, Benaras represents a stage which is capitalist(to some extent) but has retained its social/religious values. In benaras, it is economy with religion or religion with economy. It is tradition with modernity and modernity with tradition. 

*All pictures clicked by Sunam Thapa

Saturday, May 25, 2013

My Kitchen secret

This is an entry for My Weekend Party with Gourmet Food contest of Indiblogger and Kitchens of India

This story is inspired from some real-life incidents

"Yaar, aunty ne kya subzi banayi hai! Tu bhi kuch seekh !" (Aunty has made such a great dish! You also learn something from her!)

"Abe, tu seekh le. Mujhe toh aata hi hai. Meri paneer ki subzi toh itni tasty hoti hai ki ghar mei sab do baar toh lete hi hai!" (You go and learn! I already know how to cook. The paneer curry that I cook is so tasty that everyone takes atleast a second helping!)

"Acha? toh kabhi hamare liye leke aayiyo na" (Ya? Fine then, get it for us as well.)

"Haan pucca! Next week le aaungi!" (Sure! I will bring it in the next week)

This incident took place several times during my two years of masters. The "next week" never came. It couldn't have ever happened as I am not even a "novice" when it comes to cooking. It was not like I never tried. I always wanted to be a good cook as I love to eat, specially, junk food. I love to watch cookery shows and read recipe books. But the truth is that the only thing that I can cook are stories. I have realised this over some years of seeing mute expressions when people would eat my preparation and hearing the sudden change in tone when I would announce that I plan to make something. I have got more direct indications when a friend told me quite directly that he has had enough of gulping down bits of the "cake" with tons of water and his consoling me that one cannot and should not even try to be perfect in everything. I have realised this truth but this is not to say that I don't "cook" at all. I have continued to cook paneer subzis (curries) as even if no one else would eat, I will.

I have also continued to cook "stories" as harmless fun. But little did I know that one day, it would backfire. I am talking about the last month of my post-graduation when the entire class had started getting emotional. Farewell parties, photo sessions, the last class of post graduation, the last lecture and the plans for the "last" get-together. And here was the big blast! My friends decided that since I am a native, I should get some manners and invite them for lunch. I do not have a problem with being the host but they wanted me to cook! "Yaar, ab toh hume tera shahi paneer, mughali paneer kadhai paneer khila de" (Now that we are parting ways, it is the last chance to try those paneer dishes that you cook), they all said. I was rendered speechless but I could not show my true expressions (it was as if all my organs were trying to slap me) and an invisible hand (of Karma?) pushed my head down in a nod.

I was in a fix. I just didn't know what to do. I started searching the internet for some miracles. I read some recipe blogs and there was it! No, not the recipe, an advertisement! It was an advertisement of Kitchen of India Ready-to-eat dishes! Thanking "All the gods of the universe", I clicked on Even the agnostic in me was tempted to use the imagery of heaven to describe what I saw. Paneer Darbari, Paneer Malai and Mughlai Paneer...I was reminded of my convent education and Jesus's saying, "When one door closes, another opens". And not just another door, there was a third one with halwa!

Feeling proud of myself, my ability to brag and the luck to save it, I started planning for the other aspects of the party. Since this would be like a farewell party that would invoke nostalgia in the future, I thought of using this party for invoking nostalgia of our childhood days. I decided not to put any dress code as dress codes can be problematic and can conflict with people's ideologies. As about the ambience, I decided to clean up my room. It would have been perfect it would have been a godown party. Going by the theme of nostalgia, I decided to make it appear like it used to be some years back, when I shared the room with my sister who was quit hygiene-conscious and had an aesthetic sense. But more importantly, the stack with music cassettes, the old stereo system, those dumb posters of our favorite actors would be back. As for music, radio zindabad! And added to this past "glory" (disaster?) would be those school bus, trip-time games like truth or dare.

The big day is approaching. I have sent out hand-made invitations to my very excited friends. I hope that they will enjoy the delicacies and the time that we will spend together, definitely not for the last time! We will definitely meet, not regularly but we will. And yes, I hope that they will also enjoy my "sweet" and "delicious" lie which I will confess to them and would tell them to try the amazing ready-to-eat delicacies of Kitchens of India

Friday, May 10, 2013

Modern Health care: an inclusive approach to health care

This write-up is an entry for "How does Modern Healthcare touch lives?" contest by Indiblogger and Apollo 

We are all familiar with the phrase "Health is Wealth" but the sad reality is and has always been "heath for those who have wealth". It is generally the wealthy who can afford to care for their health. The millions other are deprived of this right to a healthy body. We all know that owing to their sanitary conditions, the poor are also the most prone to diseases.

With the advent of capitalism, there has been a rapid but an unequal growth. A very famous line "The rich have become richer and the poor poorer" captures the miserable reality. However, this is not to deny some significant efforts that are being made to change this reality. There are efforts by the Government agencies, international agencies, NGOs and private sector like Apollo who are striving for an inclusive healthcare.

I remember the first health insurance advertisement on television where a man comes out of the hospital and is shown to be knocked down by the punch of the hospital bill. Yes, this was definitely one of the worries of the middle and lower-income families. How will they bear the exorbitant hospital bill? The health insurance, a feature of the modern health care, has been an important venture in the life of an average person. Today, it is quite common for a person to invest in a health insurance. The facility of health insurance also permits them to undergo major and expensive surgeries, without caring much about the need to immediately accumulate large sum of money. Though there are also problems with this scheme such as the tendency of doctors do try to create an abnormally expensive bill and the irrelevant tests, the benefit and the indispensability of this facility cannot be ignored.

Free health camp organised by Apollo Hospital in Dhaka
Modern health care and the competitive spirit that it does significantly entail has also proved beneficial to the lower-income and middle-income families in the form of the "Free health camps". It has become quite normal to have full-colour pamphlets reading "Bring this pamphlet and avail a free check-up" or "Free health camp, just for today" in the sunday paper. These free health camps seeks to accommodate any person who can afford to buy the newspaper and ensure a free medical advice. These free health camps are essential as they can identify possible signs of a disease, which we otherwise completely ignore.

One of the most significant changes has been the quota reserved for the lower-income families in private hospitals. Though the Government has tried to create a strong network of Government health care centres and clinics across the nation, it is a known fact that the real picture is dismal. How many of us would opt for them? How many of us trust them? It is not that the poor people trust them but it is just that they don't have an option. There is a lack of infrastructure, poor facilities, careless attitude of doctors and many others problems. Thus, this quota is a significant effort to ensure the lower-income families, a right to proper health care that they deserve.

Apollo's clinic bus for DISHA
Last but definitely not the least, hospitals like Apollo have taken individual steps to realize the humanitarian goal. Apollo is equipped with latest technology and well-qualified doctors and is one of the best known hospitals in the world. It is for this reason that it attracts medical tourists from across the world. This is a well-know and established fact. However, another equally important and commendable task undertaken by Apollo are it's humanitarian initiatives like Disha, SAHI, CURE and SACHi that seek to extend the right to the best health possibilities that Apollo provides, to the economically underprivileged sections of the society. It has tried to extend the privilege to the underprivileged even in the remote areas of the country. In doing so, it also brings out a new, positive and a humanitarian side of the role that non-governmental and private sector can do.

Thus, the modern health care seems to be trying for a more inclusive health care. Health should not only be a concern for the wealthy. It is the right of every person, irrespective of their socio-economic background. Just because someone is poor or subjected to economic violence, he/she is not entitled to suffer. Infact, it is a social responsibility of the privileged to ensure that the freedom (to live a health life) is being extended to them. This seems to be the guiding principle of the inclusive approach to modern health care. This humanitarian/egalitarian approach should be sustained. The modern health care should continue to touch lives, irrespective of any distinction. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Afzal Guru, Sarabjit Singh And Now Sanaullah: The Vicious Cycle Of “Justice”?

Three people have succumbed to the injuries of inhumanity intertwined with extreme nationalism. All three have been linked together to serve “justice”. But have they really served “justice”?

I will begin with the case of Sarabjit Singh. After about 20 years, Sarabjit Singh, an Indian prisoner was attacked by fellow inmates in the Lahore jail. As he struggled for 6 days in the hospital, there was an exchange of dialog between the Indian and Pakistan Government. The Indian Government had requested the Pakistan Government to act on "humanitarian grounds" and release him (the prisoner). The Pakistan Government was claimed to have "positively considered it". However, this positive dialogs could not materialise as Sarabjit could not survive. And now, his death has once again started the vicious circle. Sarabjit has become a national hero in India. Pakistan Government has "again" "betrayed" us and once again, India has proved to be "weak", "powerless" and "submissive". "We" have again "lost".
This is the story that is known on the Indian side of the border. The story on the other side of the border is that Sarabjit Singh, an accused who had pleaded "guilty" in the Karachi bomb blast had been attacked by fellow inmates. He was an Indian "spy" who had been given the death sentence by the Supreme court. The Pakistan Government, however, did everything that they could to save him after the attack in the jail. But he could not be saved. Based on the comments in Pakistani newspapers, the popular reaction has been that "justice" has been served. People argued that "He" who had killed mercilessly was also bound to have a similar fate. They pray for the families of the 14 people who had died.

A third story presented by Sarabjit's kin and advocate Awais Sheikh was that he was not guilty. He was a farmer who had crossed the border in a drunk state. But was falsely implicated in the Karachi bomb blast that had occurred three days before he had crossed the border. He was mistaken to be "Manjit Singh", the accused in the bomb blast. He was "innocent". Sarabjit Singh was under trial.

These are the three versions of the same story and now we should attempt to search the "truth". But is there any? If yes, "who" will establish it? But more importantly, is it important now to establish it? A man has lost his life. A man who was under trial has been killed to serve "justice", as people of Pakistan believed or was made to believe. And now after his death, people of his home country has claimed him and declared him a "martyr".
To me, his story is an appeal as was the story of Afzal Guru. Besides the link that has been drawn by people surrounding “justice”, if we look closely, there are several other similarities in the cases of Sarabjit and Afzal Guru. Both were considered to be "national terrorist". For both, there were mercy pleas. While in the case of Sarabjit, the Indian Government had claimed to have appealed to the Pakistan Government, for Afzal Guru, there were public debates. However, in both the cases, the appeal proved ineffective because they were based on humanitarian grounds, rather than the claim and the evidence to prove that they were perhaps innocent and were falsely implicated. This is surprising as one of the biggest evidence in both the cases were also the "vague" court verdicts. For Sarabjit, the court declared that "whether Sarabjit Singh or Manjit Singh, the name does not matter" and for Afzal, it was even more vague that even though there was no strong evidence, he should be hanged "to satisfy the collective conscience". Both were cases that involved (as constructed) popular sentiments. Both were deprived of a fair and unbiased trial.

However, it is true that Sarabjit was definitely luckier than Afzal who was never declared a "martyr". The people of India are still unaware that to "satisfy" their "collective conscience", an innocent person was hanged to death.

But what is more painful for me is that both of them were perhaps the victims of nationalist politics. With Afzal Guru, democracy was also hanged to death. Afzal was not given a chance to present his petition in the world's largest democracy. In the case of Sarabjit, yet again, a person who may/may not be innocent (he was still under trial) was seen as more an Indian rather than as an accused. This is true not only for Pakistan but also for the Indian Government who kept "pleading" that for "20 years, an Indian has been away from his home country. He should be sent back". What kind of a petition is that? If he had really committed the horrendous crime which I feel that the Indian Government did buy or if he was really a spy, does he have the right to evade punishment just because he is an Indian? A criminal is a criminal, whether he is an Indian or Pakistani. Since it is unclear whether the attack on Sarabjit was planned by the Government, it is unethical to raise questions to them but it is valid to ask them about the security of prisoners, especially the ones whose trial is ongoing. Based on the statement of Awais Sheikh, his advocate, this attack was predictable as there were tensions in Pakistan after the death of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru. Why didn't the Pakistan Government took the appropriate measures to ensure his safety?
Sarabjit Singh had succumbed to the injuries of inhumanity and extreme nationalism. Why was he killed? Because he was an accused in a bomb blast or because he was an Indian prisoner whose life had become a source of political and nationalist tension in Pakistan? What had killed him?

Another sad reality is that his death has also re-awakened nationalist sentiments in India. The people of India, the Government and the media has suddenly reclaimed Sarabjit. They have made him a "martyr" not of injustice and inhumanity but of their war against Pakistan. His death has become another opportunity, a "fresh breach", as some media have claimed, in the Indo-Pak relations. The people of India are outraged at this "inhumanity" of Pakistan Government and the competition to prove who is more "inhuman" has begun. The competition has already claimed another life, that of Sanaullah Ranjay, a Pakistani prisoner in the Jammu jail. While some have condemned it, there are others who take it as a “mere reaction” and justify it by arguing that now “justice” has been served.

But now that Afzal Guru, Sarabjit Singh and Sanaullah have died, has our "collective conscience" been satisfied? Has justice been served? Have we “responded” satisfactorily to the inhumanity caused? With them, the human has died.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

RIP Sarabjit: Statement by Aaghaz-e-Dosti over the death of Sarabjit Singh



We pray for Sarabjit’s soul. It is an unfortunate reality. However, we condemn the revival of jingoistic sentiments. It is disturbing that a loss of life has become another opportunity to revive jingoism. Sarabjit’s case had been there for two decades but the Indian Government had never took any major step for his release and now after his death, the Prime Minister declared him as “the brave son of the nation”. The Indian Government had asked for a mercy petition for Sarabjit but according to his relatives and his advocate, he was innocent. It was a case of “mistaken identity”. The media was also aware of this but they chose to remain silent. And now they have made short documentaries on the “martyr” and are provoking the people of India. Why were they silent? How does these documentaries suddenly erupt, in a matter of a few hours? We also condemn the response from the opposition leaders. Why were they silent earlier?
It is also unacceptable that the Pakistan Government had neglected the security of an Indian prisoner whose trial was still ongoing. There are several unanswered questions like how were the Pakistani prisoners able to attack Sarabjit when the barracks for Pakistani and Indian soldiers were separate? How were weapons allowed in the jail? We request the Pakistani Government to ensure a  fair and speedy investigation. We also request them to tighten the security of other prisoners in the jail.
We condemn the jingoistic response from both sides. We think that both the Governments had failed. We do not know the “truth” and we do not want to engage in the “if they would have” debate. There have been lapses on both sides. But what we must realise is that above all this politics, a life has been lost…a life that was possibly “innocent”. This is not a moment to politicise his death and shamefully regard it as “another knot” in the Indo-Pak relations.
The general response among the people of Pakistan is that “justice” has been done as they considered him to be a “terrorist”. To them, we say, his trial was still ongoing. And even if he was “guilty”, this was still an unfortunate incident. The judiciary had the sole right to punish him. The people of India, in contrast, are taking it as an “attack” by Pakistan. Suddenly, Sarabjit has become their brother. They are mocking at the Indian Government and debating if India is “weak” and have against started challenging peace initiatives. To them, we say, Sarabjit was a human being who has died as a victim of nationalist politics on both sides. Unless and until, it is proved that the state had a role in his killing, it is unethical to point fingers at them. Instead of asking for a “War”, ask for “JUSTICE”.
RIP Sarabjit Singh

Aaghaz-e-Dosti is an initiative of Mission Bhartiyam to strengthen Indo-Pak friendship. Aaghaz-e-Dosti can be reached and can be visited at