VAB is not the Issue

For the good part of two years, we have been hearing a lot of noise about the Village Administration Bill (VAB). There were protests and speeches about it, demonstrations and weary policemen. The people against it seemed to be in the majority and only the government side seriously thought it was a good idea. In Jaintia Hills, it went off fairly well and was passed without much delay or opposition. People who studied the JHADC VAB say it is a superior document than the one proposed by the KHADC. Well, that’s a short summary of the VAB imbroglio thus far.

Now, I have been thinking and I have got to ask one question: why should it matter at all? Before you raise your voice please let me continue. Why should it matter how we administer our “villages” when they are so ‘dead’? Please keep in mind that I am referring here specifically to urban and semi-urban villages. In particular, I am referring to the Shillong “dongs” (localities). Most of these hardly have any social vibrancy left in them. I am referring here to the community life that I remember as a child. I am not Romantic about the past, it was not all sunny days and cheerfulness but I think it is fair to say that we generally had more community participation back then than we do today.

Why should some law threaten us so much? We should be more alarmed by the way in which we have become alienated from one another. When we were children growing up in Mawlai, my friends and I had a playground of about 500 metres, that is, to say we played together everywhere in our neighbourhood. We didn’t know one compound from the next, we didn’t fear anyone and everyone’s garden was open to us. Needless to say, hide-and-seek was ridiculously difficult. Today when I look at the old neighbourhood, I feel nostalgic and a part of me wishes it was still the same.

What has changed in the last few decades? For one, we all “grew up”. Not always in a good way. For some reason, many who played in the local woods and fields, when they were children, do not want their own offspring to do the same. When you question them about this they usually say things like, “In our time, the world was less dangerous”. Well, I personally think that “danger” keeps the mind sharp, but that’s my own personal opinion. Firstly, if we agree that the world has become more dangerous today, will withdrawing from it make it less dangerous? Will deserted streets be safer than a street filled with night walkers? We are horrified about the seemingly rampant rapes and multiple molestations that occur in Meghalaya so instead of reclaiming the streets from the ‘bogey-men’, we lock ourselves in. In Calcutta, I regularly see women walking around at ten o’clock at night. Think about what that implies next time someone says, “Tribals respect women”. In our society, if a woman is out after 4 PM, the daddys start calling like maniacs! Maybe they should just lock them up like Rapunzel in her lonely tower.

The solution that many well-off “liberal” Khasi parents have for this “after-hours” conundrum is to give their children a car so that they’ll be “safe”. But again, this doesn’t make our streets and neighbourhoods safer. It just makes your own kids safer; there will be no pedestrians and the streets will continue to be sinister and nameless. Now if you don’t see a problem with just thinking about yourself and your own nest, then I am afraid you’re part of the problem. I’m not saying that we should all turn into compassionate Saint Teresas but we need to get more young people more involved within the local community. Our neighbourhoods and “dongs” are becoming worse off not because of the VAB or imagined evils but because we are retracting from them.

It seems that at the heart of it, no one has the time anymore. No one has the time to read books or listen to music – not while working or driving, just listening to it for its own sake. All we want to do is chillax after work, watch X-Factor and drink a peg or two (or five or six). No one wants to take part in some silly community activity so they contribute money instead. Sorry to break it to you, but what use is money when it is your presence that is sought? The relationships and sharing at a community event, whether small or large shows, are invaluable. If these lived-in spaces – “dongs”, neighbourhoods, localities – are not worth our time, what is? Let us clear some time for important things. Facebook and Instagram are not real social media; talking and contact are.

When I first stayed in Jowai, as a deracinated Shillong Pnar, I was immediately struck by the camaraderie and closeness that people there have. This is changing as well of course, but people there still enjoy being closely sociable. Sometime in the 1960s, some wise “wohs” (uncle sorts) foresaw a social schism, so they decided to foster community spirit by formalizing an event with the goal of bringing people together. Now, Jowai society is very closely knit even today so I often wonder how close they were before the 60s! The institution of the yearly “Chad Kut Snem” (dance rally) was probably drawn from the Christmas community feast which we still enjoy in Shillong (“bam doh”) but it has grown into a large secular event that embraces all (even deracinated Pnars).

Every Jowai locality competes with the other in devising the best dance tunes and parade floats. It is healthy competition which benefits Jowai community in general. Every locality has a name that needs to be upheld and an arch-rival to be bested. This is why Jowai carnivals consistently bring in bands from all over and it is a pleasure which draws in everyone from everywhere. Earlier, in Shillong, we had fetes and carnivals which were a real treat. Whatever happened to those? It is sad to say that most community fairs and “locality weeks” that I have been to seem like bad government shows. Every chief guest, usually an MLA or retired officer, seems hell-bent on telling you their entire life history. How boring! We need to take a few pages from the Jowai model and revamp our villages. Then we can worry about VAB.

N.B. Another thing that I have noticed in Jowai is that there are a number of open grounds in each locality where neighbourhood children can play in. These are ‘picnic’ areas during the annual feast at the end of the year but are mostly open throughout the year for other events. In Shillong, most of our small fields are being completely dug up in order to make way for indoor stadiums which, sad to say, are mostly locked up by local administrators, except for a few days in a year. Either that happens or high fences are constructed to keep intruders, and players, out. Most people have to go all the way to Polo to play games.

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Planning for People

Every year, in March, I have to listen to the same pseudo-technical verbosity at State and Central levels being reported across various media outlets. The Budget Session, it is clear from all the attention and scrutiny it receives, is by far the single most important Parliamentary session there is, and rightly so. Economic activities are the life-blood of society. Here in Meghalaya sadly, the only sheets we know are bed-sheets (which we buy with money which isn’t ours). The grim reality of the state balance sheets has not roused us from our slumber. A quick survey of letters sent in to the editor of Shillong Times shows us that for good or bad, people do have various political opinions and certain positions that they hold up. I might not agree with most of the views but it is ‘healthy’ nonetheless to observe the flux and flow. It is striking though that economic opinions that make their way to the Shillong Times are too infrequent and callow when they appear. For sure, it is easy to drown in the verbal mire of economics and finance and perhaps this is why letters addressing these issues are so scarce. Economics has become, like Law, a specialist discipline. It should not be.

The people of Meghalaya have been their own political masters for a fair amount of time now. We have captured political power but economic power is still a far-cry. We barely produce anything on our own. Our capacity for production is only half-heartedly bolstered. Most of our essential commodities come from outside – rice, sugar, salt, oil – and we are effectively just a colony of consumption. Various reasons are touted for this problem: everything from mismanagement and corruption to the ineptitude and supposed laziness of “tribals”. There is no one correct answer but there must be resolution. The governments that have ruled Meghalaya thus far have been simply allocating money to various projects and departments, they have not been thinking about a living economy. Of course, we need capital investment but we need to have visions first and a commitment to work with the people towards those ends. The point of this entire financial hullabaloo is to try and make people’s lives better. It is that simple. There is no point trying to hide behind jargon – fiscal this and GDP that – when there is no clear goal.

The Budget Session must be quite tiring judging by the looks of the sleepy faces and drowsy heads. Why is that so? There is no doubt that there are a lot of numbers to be crunched and aside from a few passing observations mentioned in the newspapers by some legislators it seems that most have no idea what is going on. It is unquestionably boring and no one can visualise what any of the figures actually mean on the ground. This has to be changed if we are to proceed ahead. The economy and economics need to be simplified more (and their reach widened) because contrary to what many economists believe it is not rocket science. We will be doomed if we rely only on technocrats who do not know anything outside their offices. Unless more of us gain insight into the world of economics we will find it very difficult to mount any sort of counter argument.

To get some idea about the terrible state our economy is in we should look at a sector. Infrastructural development is probably the dirtiest business in the world. There is much money to be made and if you ally yourself with a political party, you can be a certified contractor chamcha. That is why there are so many contractors today, because government policy is inclined in that direction. The need for good and safe infra is not in question. It is an absolute necessity. However, planning in this regard continues to be implemented with no accountability. If the estimated costs for completion of a project are say 5 crores and actual costs come to about 4 crores, you can be assured that 70 lakhs will end up in the wallet of the contractor. The government stops caring when the building is up. It doesn’t give a damn about fair wages and the rights of the labourers nor has it shown an interest in minimum wage revision and other important topics. They can show in their books that the job was completed and wash their hands of anything else.

The point of governmental spending should not be to create a class of elites but to redistribute resources among the people. Taxation (wealth, income) is supposed to help address this problem by levying taxes on richer people and giving that to the many in the lower strata. This is why the wealthy want tax breaks. In Meghalaya, a dangerous situation is coming to a head. We have no means of controlling the hoarding of wealth and assets within the tribal milieu. What is happening (and I blame governments squarely for this) is that a few families and business houses are becoming too powerful and it puts our collective safety in jeopardy. The Land Act, Benami Act protects tribals from ‘outsiders’ but what protects tribals from other tribals? This is a very disconcerting question but it needs answering. Every major party in the state today is a serpent’s nest of vested business interests. Every political party operating currently exists to make their members richer and more powerful. They don’t care about the life and death of your small business nor will they protect local industry from outside competition. Our public debts are mounting and there is no easy way to bring it down. The gates are open and our local enterprises are left to fend off the giant commercial sharks, in a leaky boat, with a broken oar.

I recently heard an anecdote about the ex CM of Meghalaya, (late) B B Lyngdoh. A person informed me that Mr Lyngdoh would always convene a meeting with the local retailers, merchants and service providers of Iewduh every few months in order to understand the trends in the marketplace and to solicit their views about what needed to be done for a healthy economy. These were not just the big-wigs of the bazaar but included tailors, grocers and others. Such proactive inclusiveness cannot be imagined today in Mukul’s Meghalaya. It further highlights humility and a dedication towards public service which I have not seen in most of our sitting legislators. There was less money in the economy in those days no doubt but there was also less corruption. Maybe I am being naive but it sounds more like an economy of the lower rung, building up from below. Contrast this to our current economy of booze drenched party planners and in-bred contractor khandans and you can gauge for yourself how far we have fallen.

“Backsliders”

What makes these buggers tick?

You’d think they’d be a little more grateful;

Us, giving it to them.

Why go there, when they’d lose all this?

The electricity, quinine and Handel.

 

The jungles aren’t any safer than our jails,

Plus the cholera, humidity and snakes.

But they’re ultimately savages, the rational doesn’t hold.

I suppose they like it out there… makes them feel something;  

 

Anyway send the garrisons more guns;

Bibles and cheap booze to the civil stations.

Laban in Winter

I

I remembered you for your whitewashed walls and the old trees which grew in the old gardens;

This was the old world, before colour, and as a child I hated the monochrome ekra;

I shuddered behind feeble old people in their twilight chairs –

Which they had us push out into the winter-sun’s verandah;

I remembered your old people smell and the old people love for young kisses –

That world is gone now,

My grandfather is gone

And most of his nephews.

All that’s left is men stumbling in bars, secretly whispering desires to other men.

 

II

At kha-ieid‘s – under an old conifer with spiky cones – once I found a baby sparrow

I tried to protect it from the hounds –

Uncle Eric’s best mates.

Into the temple of my palms, I took it.

Suddenly from deep within me

A sudden impulse – to crush it into a feather ball – arose.

What stopped me, I wonder,

Was it the thought of blood that calmed my systole,

Was it the eventuality of squirming that blunted my lust?

Whatever it was, it quietened my mind;

I don’t know if the chick survived the season

But we both made it through that hour.

Comrade, I’ll add you on Facebook

Many politically active people love Facebook. It has made their need for expression more vibrant and has widened the reach of their deeds and words. Everyone now can have a channel or a medium for broadcasting their views and opinions. This is the so-called ‘democratic’ aspect of Facebook. This is the subversive, even supposedly radical, feature that it is supposed to possess. We are cornered today by Big Media like CNN and their indigenous offshoots such as Times Now. Facebook has come along to save us from these ‘nasties’.

Many people are on Facebook because they claim that it makes their access to, and consumption of, information easier. It is a one-stop shop for their information-needs. They consider it a vital link in the chain between the info-makers and themselves. This is true enough but as censorship of progressive issues by Facebook has shown, information is not without filtration. If we are seeking ‘real’ info about the world and the events in it, Facebook might not be the best way to get it. The Internet was touted until the early 2000s as a great “information superhighway” that would democratize knowledge and spread information equally throughout the world. Because of this perhaps many governments have initiated legislations to curb the power and scope of the Internet, such that today it has lost much of its liberating potential.

That potential is further weakened by the policemen – beyond the State agencies – which includes Facebook. Facebook has for all purposes become the Internet for a large number of people globally. The Internet might still in reality be a highway of information but its traffic is being controlled and directed in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. Facebook is one of these shepherds. Its advocacy for faster ‘lanes’ (speeds) within the Internet, the odious Free Basics project and its courting of vested government and corporate interests that are willing to pay to promote their products, within its programme, all point to a deep desire for control by the company. Maybe one can ‘subvert’ it but I doubt this; it seems that the Facebook revolutions that were claimed by many are no longer affecting much change. Maybe that is because they were probably never realised because of Facebook, in the first place.

Further, what Facebook has given us is not just information but a glut of it. Any credible news is immediately followed by oppositional info, such that we are drowned in the possibilities that all sides are equally and entirely correct (or wrong). This destroys in effect all possibilities of political change that might arise. For instance, the BJP might be accused of a scam and immediately someone emerges to accuse the INC of the same. The issue then becomes oppositional/polarised instead of progressive; the issue should be about corruption and how to tackle it; not about BJP honesty vs. INC honesty.

Because of the swiftness, and more importantly copiousness, of the information via social media, many of us forget to cross check or investigate the claims that are made. Traditional ‘long form’ journos lose out and wild outrageous news floods us within seconds. Facebook is not the only one to blame here of course but its ubiquity is something that must be looked at suspiciously.

Has Facebook really made our lives better than it was before it came along? I seriously doubt this. It has just stepped in and simplified our ways of connecting with each other but it has herded us into groups where we can all love, hate, dislike or like something collectively. Experts have rightly called Facebook an “echo chamber”, where one can only hear one’s own beliefs being articulated in a positive manner; real criticism is not allowed.

Facebook claims that this is not true and that people can make up their own minds about what to follow or like. But how easy is it to be on “automatic” mode, how seductive is the choice of no choice! Many of the groups, the majority of them, I’d have to say, don’t want to ‘mix’ with other groups. Facebook has made our borders more distinct when it could have chosen different models for user interactions. But that is what you get when you bring scale into the picture, I suppose.

Facebook is the prime example of a digital multicultural society with no integration/interchange, it mirrors reality, in the online realm; and much like the real world, power is held firmly by the few on top.

My own personal issue with Facebook stems from my belief that it has not enhanced creativity at all but severely reduced it to fit into a status bar. I mean this in relation to writers and not really audio-visual people. Facebook has destroyed the ability of writers to frame a thought beyond a few lines. The instant gratification of the ‘likes’ that our friends would (no doubt) bestow upon our oft-times reactionary silly ‘sweet nothings’ is too tempting for many to defer. This robs us of pursuing an idea further and making it more complicated, developing its body. The dangerous lulls of uncritical praise have stunted ideas into shrubs when they could have been trees. The immediate response that one might get from across the Facebook platform has made it addictive and appealing but is that why someone should write or create? There’s the thing we must ask ourselves.

Poets and wordsmiths might be put off by my assertions. The platform, after all, encourages brevity – the soul of wit. Many would also say that Facebook allows a free and wide distribution of their works which is one of the positives. Maybe at the stage of distribution it could be used effectively but a profile, for me, distracts the creative process a lot (unless the author is researching and writing about Facebook!). These are rigid arguments arising out of my rigid belief in the writer’s process. By arguing in this manner, I make my own beliefs clear and it is up to the listener to decide for herself whether she also feels the same way. You needn’t ‘like’ this.

Facebook Necro

There are a multitude of reasons to discard Facebook and get back to mundane existence. I suppose this opening sentence does not sound very enthusiastic. Well everyday life is mundane, it really is. Facebook is addictive because of that sad fact of life. Between the shopping, the raising of children and our imminent deaths there are very few moments of singular sparkling tear-inducing Beauty. Yes, we probably need distractions like Facebook to save us from our subconscious thoughts of depression and self-imploding doom.  That and for sharing pictures of food and cute animals. But I digress.

I find this Facebook ‘disturbing’ and that is because when someone passes away, their online profile still remains! This terrifies me because that person has, in effect, become a ghost. We, the living that remember and these dead are stuck in a digital Purgatory. We cannot ignore these ghosts either as they are still our “friends”. We carry memories of the dead with us always, no doubt, but this is different. Facebook profiles are run by living breathing human beings. They become ‘living things’ in turn, imprinted by the lives behind them. Unlike books, documentaries, footage and other forms of ‘record keeping’, Facebook profiles have no completion. They end only when the person, behind them, ends.

Our relationship with films, books such and such are premised on the fact that we maintain a “disinterested” attitude towards them, the creators of such works are no longer able to control what happens to them once they are finished. But profiles are not like this. They are online personas of people. They represent our connection with those people with all their quirks and customizations. When they die, that connection is severed. It is different from the nostalgia of seeing an old photograph on a mantelpiece or opening a cupboard and getting a whiff of a once-familiar smell. Unlike clothes or perfumes, online profiles were those people and not just a simple extension of themselves. Those uploaded photographs mean nothing without the comments that were exchanged between creator and viewer(s).

I think that such sentimentalism is traumatic. On that note, are all our memories of people filled with happiness and joy? There might be some which deserve to be forgotten. I am not an especially fervent advocate of this because I do believe History repeats itself, more often than nought, so we ought to remember it. But I suspect a survivor of abuse, or rape might not want to be reminded of the person(s) who caused them pain and trauma.

The dead serve us best when they come fleetingly and privately – maybe to inspire, maybe to remind us to live – that is what distinguishes visitation from haunting. To construct a temple of mourning for them is grossly “Havishamian” to say the least. Facebook profiles of the dead are empty-eyed shells and like the remains of their owners should be consigned to Eternity. But what can we say about our global culture today? Indulgence, even of Death, is a juicy norm.

Women drinking in Bars

I found myself – yet again – in a packed dingy bar surrounded on all sides by a blanket of noise, cigarette smoke and general ‘run-downery’. This dive, started by a Chinese gentleman – whose portrait hung over the payment counter – was in an old market area of Calcutta – Chandni Chowk – an area where Parsi traders once plied their wares alongside French and Syrian merchants. It is one of many spaces in Calcutta that oozes out History with just a little light tapping at the, apparently, hard surface. Bars are great at offering us those much needed oases for pensive Romanticizing. As I walked and interrogated the market area around me, a swell of Time swept over me. My mind started to over-excite itself with figments of this and that. The bar conveniently offered its (relatively) inner calm for me; to weigh and sort out the thoughts which had been percolating within for the past two hours. I went in hurriedly.

As I sat down on a hard, worn down chair I remembered similar ‘austere’ bars of my hometown. Shillong establishments of old – but ill – repute like Ambassador, Golden Dragon came up. I remembered the loud, smoky camaraderie and the (frankly) stupid (but useful) ideas we often threw at each other. All these things have added layers to my life and I smiled to myself (psychotically) as I sipped the vodka, drawing out the incidences once again in my mind. The bar had wooden booths built along the sides of the wall. They were far more spacious than those we, in Shillong, are used to. There must have been about 10 in all. Out of them came the unfamiliar and pleasant sounds of women chatting. I say unfamiliar because in Shillong you would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling a woman in a dive bar. Women, generally speaking, are routed towards fancier joints. Places like Pinewood, Cloud Nine and the like are considered ‘women-friendly’. Women can be free and ‘modern’ within such spaces. The rest of the drinking establishments of Shillong are quite clearly a ‘no go’ for women. Especially for ‘respectable’ women.

I had once walked into a bar with some friends only to be told that they would not serve us booze. The reason was because one of my friends had come with his then- girlfriend. We made a show and protest, deliberately trying to upset the men who were already drinking and stormed off after that. In hindsight, there have been many similar incidences like that. But then again we live in a society which has a terrible sense of business; where empty moralism trumps everything else. Must be one of those “salient features” of “tribal” society that I have heard so much about.

A few years ago, there were indeed a number of Shillong bars that permitted women to engage in the wonderful societal event called drinking. However, a slew of molestation/rape cases and a murder quickly led many authorities to point towards the bars as the progenitors of the root problem. It is a fairly common but no less idiotic declaration, in other parts of the country as well. After that, all the bars were ordered to close down by 9 pm and gradually, over time, the curfew was relaxed. However, bar management (probably with directives from the police) had somewhere along the line decided that women were a great liability to their continued business operations. The outcome was that women could not drink as freely as they once did and many bars openly turned them away. This situation still holds true even today, some 5 or 6 years after the murder of that unfortunate woman.

For women, every space is contended space. Even as I sat in that Calcutta dive, I felt this. Ostensibly, it is wonderful that the city of Calcutta seems to have such a nonchalant attitude towards women drinking in bars. It comes out favourably when you compare this to the terrible persecution, women in similar situations, often face in Bangalore, Delhi, etc. By many progressive meters, Calcutta is India’s most ‘civilised’ city. However, the fight for “spaces” is not over by any stretch of the imagination. While we may applaud the permissiveness of Calcutta, we must also note certain things: how drunk women are looked at by the staff and management, how women are usually expected to be accompanied by male friends, how they are hidden away – in their booths or special rooms – from the “serious” drinking lot, how they are talked to, so on. Women should never be complacent. A rape, murder or similar tragedy along with Right wing opportunism (whether political or social) could undo decades of progress. Women themselves must defend these hard-fought ‘battlegrounds’ because fortunes can change in the blink of an eye.

The issue is, of course, not simply about a woman’s right to drink openly. It is about expanding the rights of women to do anything they wish to do. It is imperative to “perform” publically against the idiotic patriarchal ideas and practices which characterize most Indian communities. As I sat thinking about these things, with that glass in my hand, the various unfortunate situations which plague women in Shillong came up as well. Being able to drink in cheaper places, like those in Calcutta, ensures that women of every social stratum can enjoy themselves. In Shillong, sadly, this is not the case. If women want to drink, they have to pay through the nose.

Perhaps, a look at how rural communities of Meghalaya ‘handle their drink’ would be beneficial for urban dwellers. My friends and I once had a wonderful sing-along with a group of inebriated ladies in a village beyond Smit. So here is a little secret: We did not rape them, we did not succumb to the ‘beast that lies within all men’; we joked and croaked out popular tunes over the hills, enjoying one another’s company. On their part, the women did not run away at seeing, similarly inebriated, creatures. They saw the fun in the situation and made use of it. To imagine men as “beasts” or bestial, is probably the most harmful thing that we could do. We are not challenging ourselves as human beings, to be very honest, when we assume such things.  

Hiding women away from society, making “harems” (in which ever way) for their ‘protection’, does nothing but create more insecurity. Along the lake garden walkways at Rabindra Sarobar, I would see women moving about at 10 PM or so. This is a victory in a sense. Do the (middle class) Khasi parents encourage their daughters to participate in any activities after 6 PM? Do they encourage their daughters to walk around and explore Shillong? Sure, they might buy them a car and teach them to drive but that is hardly a “public space”. One should not be so surprised then, when women are turned away from bars, because in many ways we – as a male dominated society – are encouraging the recession of their public roles in a myriad ways. As a final invocation to Shillong youths, I would like to say: relax, turn “tribal” again, enjoy your soma. Cheers.