14 dec, zero-eight. journeys.

A few months back, at the height of the Indian summer, I met a man in Pachod, a village in rural marathwada, traveling with me on the bus to Aurangabad, a medium size town about 50 kms away. He was headed to Mumbai, as I was to Pune, and our journeys would coincide for the next 7-odd hours. As the rickety bus rumbled along the dusty lanes, we began to talk, starting our conversation with a few acerbic comments about the mind-numbing heat. I learnt soon that he had come to Pachod from a mofussil village deep in the interior of Jalna district, where the offshoot of the Godavari river that had given them water for generations had slowly died, choked by the big dam upstream and thoughtless mining of the river bed for sand by local villagers. His family, once proud farmers of cotton and sweet lime, were now faced with the ignominy of sowing watermelons in the river bed during summer, and his elder brothers had pooled their meagre holdings together in desperation. As the youngest brother, his portion of the pie was negligible and hardly arable. So he was headed out to Mumbai, 14 hours by road from his village, in the hope of being employed as a gardener in one of the big companies or hotels, as a friend of his from the village was doing. He confessed that he had heard that gardeners were paid upto fifteen hundred rupees (about 33 dollars) a month in the city. He planned to return to his village as a big man, maybe in two years, with gifts for his mother and sisters, and the capability to proudly acquiesce as his family found him a good bride from his caste. I wondered on the irony of the situation, till he told me shyly that he had heard that they had excellent cultivation techniques in Mumbai, and grew exotic trees and plants in soil that was sandy and salty to the taste. This was knowledge that was more than worth the wait to go home, he said to me. As a metaphor, it was remarkably prescient, and as I sat back bemusedly to watch the first craggy rock faces of the western ghats in Ahmednagar, I thought of how my own attempt at making the leap from field-based interventions to the corridors of learning arose from a yearning to understand the workings of the world around me, and the will to master a discipline that I was passionate about.

Why’d I open my eyes?


I wanted to.

‘Dharma Pops’, Jack Kerouac


twenty-nine-zero eight : after the flood :

pune is not flooded. not yet.

as i watched the swirling waters in dark, angry eddies, about twenty feet below my feet, i knew that the rain had not stopped up river. that up in the hills, it was still the regular pitter of passing clouds, slamming into the sheer rock face, squeezing themselves in the narrow valley between the mountain peaks, and washing the hills with rain. 

the waters seemed to be raising, at least to my furiously fantasia-seeking mind. and the future of the riverside houses in pune would be etched (i felt) by a brown line of washed-up grime about 6 feet tall from the ground, all along the outer walls and the garage, as a mute testament to fireside tales of excitement-in-the-time-of-natural disaster-distress in the future.

further near the river, small houses thatched together with pieces of tarpaulin, old sacks and sticks would be washed away in the rising deluge. small shanties made of corrugated tin sheets and resting on the hard earthern floor will seep water from under their sides, then as the water begins to wash in in earnest, may not stand upright to withstand the sudden onslaught.

as reservoirs upstream fill up more and more with water, their helplessness will be depicted in their strict enforcement of maximum water level guidelines and wretched hand-wringing. in a rather macabre metaphorical allusion to the fate at the bottom of the power chain when things go wrong at the top, some warnings will be issued, some notices sent out, and vastis evacuated of their human habitation and essentials. as the dark, muttering shorls of water wash away the houses, that never existed on paper in the first place, a new set of families would have been born, transplanted overnight from the category of “urban poor” to the category of “displaced”.

the waters will recede, tho. and there will be a time after the flood. when all we shall have by way of evidence shall be the scraggly shrubs lining the river side festooned with plastic bags and detritus from the river’s path.

and memories of a day when the waters washed our houses , sometimes washing them away altogether.


All that ocean of blue

    soon as those clouds

Pass away

             — Jack Kerouac

september ninth, two-oh-oh-aight :primary health centre:

so here i am back in aurangabad, wrestling with a bunch of medical officers from ten PHCs of maharashtra during a two-day orientation training which is part enthu, part grudging acceptance and whole parts cynical ennui(for the uninitiated, PHC is the primary health centre, a basic medical care centre in the government public health system that is responsible for the health of some 30-50000 persons in its area, administering this with the help of one doctor, abt 6 nurses, 6 health assistants and 2-3 male multi purpose workers and lady health visitors)

thus the well being and continued good health and cheer of 40000 (sometimes upto 65000) hapless people is manned by a small band of abt 20 technical staff, and some four-five non technical staff (like driver, supervisor, compounder, etc).

so if there is a small minor flood, not like the kosi and its awesome paradigm shift, but a smaller, more local flood. that happens in that particular river basin every year (say some small river that flooded, killing 16 people, and displacing about 3000 others). and then after the flood waters recede, and the people find that the rotting carcasses, the open shitting grounds, the carefully constructed latrines for the community-led-total-sanitation programme and the vast mound of filth and dirt on the northern edge of the village have leached into the only available source of drinking water, the village pond, they are too busy picking up the pieces of their lives to  think abt corrections.

and then, the next week, everyone notices that the greenish-yellow gunk that forms a small puddle near their aboral ends when they squat in the grounds for their morning constitutional is more than usually offensive smelling, and the children are beginning to literally purge their guts out, thats when mr pee-aitch-see swings into action.

armed with 20 people and a packetful of chlorine tablets. and ORS packets handed arnd like largesse. and substandard and poorly stocked drug inventories, these brave men and women have to attend to the competing pressures of disease prevention, political expediency, personal prejudice, individual greed, inevitable corruption, incessant demands, squalor, filth, and the frustrating spectre of death that snatches away persons from right under their hands, even as theyre busy filling forms in triplicate asking for extra funds for diesel since the fuel budget was fixed before the hike, or more likely, waiting for the local mla to attend the inauguration of the relief camp.

now all this is an extreme case scenario. most places in india are not so dramatic, and the million daily struggles in its public sector institutions go unnoticed until there is a good flood. after all, every one wud like to sit in their home, with warm feet and dry clothes, and not have to bother abt heating water for bathing on the wood stove before the 16 hour power cut plunges everything into darkness.

having ensured these comforts, they would like not to hear too much about other persons who cannot do this.

 and life’s experiences are incremental, adding on one-on-top-of-the-other, till finally when one of these men is a joint director sitting in the kutumb kalyan bhavan, pune (thats right next to le meridien, for those who came in late), then he thinks nothing of charging a paltry 60000 rupees to ensure or block a supplicating junior officer’s transfer.

public views of morality are so terribly narrow. we see only the present, forgetting conveniently the age that brought upon us this moment:

rivers of blood in Aurangabad

it was 3:30 in the afternoon. the canteen boy had brought in chai in a little canister of steel that managed to maintain the muddy liquid in perfect steaming readiness. the crowds in front of the labour room shuffled, and the assembled congregation shifted just imperceptibly. the men at the fringes of the crowd sidled toward the boy, some of them stopping for small talk, some others exchanging notes for tea.

the women in burkhas around ward no. 28 talked between themselves, some of them gesticulating excitedly toward the labor room. the conversation was in hindi, a small island of perfect comprehensibility among the gutural marathwada tongue i wud hear all round me. they were discussing the woman (ostensibly the one inside) and her pregnancy.

i wandered off, losing interest rapidly.

besides, the chai boy’s canister was beckoning with its steamy wafts. a cup of sickly sweet chai was swilled into a cup, and deposited in my hands in exchange for 3 coins: two full, and one half rupee.

i wandered to the window, looking out of the third storey grill at the gray clouds outside, the thin drizzle that had started, and wondering to myself where the heck the ANMs could be…

(for those who came in late, the ANM= Auxiliary Nurse Midwife, who deals with primary level nursing and mainly obstetric work at the primamry health centre/subcentre level in the indian public health system. they wud be working in villages, as u can imagine)

…. so here i am looking out at the dirty quad between the surgery and the ENT wards (?) on the ground floor, the filthy go-in between across the courtyard separating the two squat buildings, the effluvium of the wards above being discharged into the gutters in between. i was fiddling with my fone absent-mindedly, wondering if the bus from the health and family welfare training centre (HFWTC, u ken?) managed to come after all, back from its rural field visit (it did) , and whether the driver yunus would come to the med college immediately to bring the girls before the wards close? (he didn’t) and a thousand other issues of mundane day-to-day irritation.

and as i stared unseeingly into the gloomy wetness outside the window, i noticed a bright colour on the ground outside, three floors below.

and i looked closely.

it was a stream of blood. roughly 20 odd feet long, winding and snaking, with a meandering course that picked its way among spilt piles of black-coloured gunk and hastily-disposed bandages. it was making its way to the pit at the far end of the quad, a red river making its way, inexhorably, towards its natural end. the colour was pale at places, the surrounding water mingling with the blood to create a light suggestion of crimson. at other places, it was dark, anggry vermillion, the blood-soaked bandages leaching their colour into the stream in the rapidly-strengthening rain. i watched, bemused, as the drizzle splattered into the stream, washing away the colours, and clearing the quad of its momentary rubral hue. soon the ground was back to its muddy colour.

the boy from the canteen had left, moving on to ward no. 26/27 now.

Mrs Pardeshi called. Yunus was refusing to come. Could I ask ashok to accomodate the nurses in the office vehicle? could he do three trips?

I turned towards the corridor, righteous indignation rising in me. there is a budget for this, dammit, i muttered to Ashok.

It was already 4.

Outside, it continued to drizzle.



The sound of silence

   is all the instruction

You’ll get.

      – Jack Kerouac

pouring rain in pachod?

I am sitting in the darkened office of Shivraj travels, outside the Aurangabad bus stop, my open laptop casting an eerie glow in the interior of the shack. A sputtering candle lights up the front desk where the passive faced (ostensibly) Mr Shivraj pronounces gloomy judgement on the fate of Pune-bound buses. His desk is simple and neat, and the small shelf on the table is a willing pagoda for a surprisingly feminine pantheon, the bald-headed and tired-grinned face of Sai Baba being the only splash of testosterone in the Devi-congested crew on the wall of the desk. The Gods are visible only to Shivraj, who can see the world beyond his shop, and the traffic passing by.

The reason for the sputteringly illuminative candle is the power cut that grips all of Aurangabad for eight hours every day. Four-in-the-morning, four-in-the-evening, ding-dong, khattam shudh and more mosquitoes than you can shake a bug-repellant doused stick at. Marathwada is reeling under the effect of no rains for well nigh on one-and-a-half months since they were expected to visit, and the highway to Beed from Aurangabad reveals cracked dry parched earth, leathery skin-and-white boned cattle, and hard, wiry men in brilliant turbans, their nut-brown faces a mass of wrinkles as they squint their summer-weary eyes to the cheerfully blue sky. Every day is another agony of waiting, a familiar dance of painful anticipation as the sky darkens for a while in a mock show of cumulo-nimbic enthusiasm, the winds sweeping across the fields carrying with them the faintest whiff of moisture. Before long, however, the clouds are scattered, and the wind once again down to faint puffs of dry-as-dust air. The animals are all starved and listless, the tall bony cattle that gnaw at the dessicated roots and grass looking hungry and thirsty, their troughs containing small puddles of slushy mud by way of aitch-two-oh.

Yesterday, however, was a change, a shift from this constant cycle of dearth and rebirth. In an awesome display of open-skied exuberance, the clouds over Aurangabad and Beed, heavily pregnant with water vapour, opened up and inundated the land with their deluge.

Small rivulets were formed on the roadside, and parched cattle arched their leathery backs in open-mouthed exultation.

Everywhere was the smell of freshness, and the promise of greenery beyond.



meanwhile, a postcript:

It is official now. “The met department has declared a heat wave in Poona”, the newspaper headlines screamed in my face on Friday. Well, not really in my face. As I rushed out of my house, my hair still wet from the shower, my ear still warm from the ambient heat of the mobile fone, I glanced over at my neighbours, where Obama had been thrown down on the mat. My neighbours are a strange nocturnal bunch. plugged into the time schedule of some random western European or eastern American time zone, they toil at odd times in the night, to apparate in their houses in the wee hours of the AM, when it is too late to sleep and too early to break fast. When finally they wake up to meet the world, the newspaper boy would have already come in, tossing presidents and heads of state with careless nonchalance onto the floor. The milk bottles hold Hillary Clinton to the ground, her smiling face held to the cold mosaic by a hard firm grip to her neck. but the paper today could not be mistaken. It was heat wave all the way. 

– blog penned on 26 Apr, 2008

Tails of a Sparrow : adventures of Lotus in the deep south : a serialised tale in many parts

“…birdlike, he perched in the corner, his head cocked to one side, his beady eyes shining bright. The Lotus regarded him impassively as he nervously twitched in his seat, his hands clasping and unclasping in his lap, his lips parted and moist, his gullet bobbing up and down in terrified confusion…..

The Lotus was unimpressed. He had seen much more in his time. Why, even Bee downstairs was a pretty amazing person, and he was not half this reticent.

Then the sparrow started talking. Contrary to what Lotus expected, it was not a chirrup, or even a tinny wheeze. It was a deep, throaty voice, somewhere between hoarse and sexy, with a potential to be either, (or neither, when stressed and angry)

“You see, its not like I really loved him. I hardly even saw his face you know? It was dark, and the consulting room smelt damp and musty, the bed was moist, and the pillow was covered in rexine. I remember the whiff of dettol from the tray next the head, and having to stand up on the steps kept by the side to get a leg up onto the bed. He was gentle, but very big….I really enjoy it when I’m in a dangerous place, I like to scream into the pillow…”

Sparrow’s voice trailed off, and Lotus sat forward, interested. This was heady stuff. The guys at Manoranjan Weekly were going to lap it up……”





pushing office desks out through your vagina

Ho, hum. Another day, another entry. We are doing data entry and cleaning with the intimate secrets of the lives of teenage brides all across Marathwada and vidarbha, and the process promises to be interesting.

And nerve-wracking, and gut-wrenching, and sometimes-nauseating, and eye-opening. And sobering. Did I mention sobering?

So yesterday there was a girl in the list. Lets call her Kunti. Not because that’s a near (or far) approximation of her name, but because there are so many kuntis out there, staring at me from in between SPSS/STATA outputs, that its difficult to keep track of names…

Besides, I guess my apostate soul does take some vicarious pleasure in naming my representative MAG (Married Adolescent Girl, u ken?) after Indian mythology’s most famous teenage mom.

So kunti’s here, with details of her life, her background (farming, two room house), children (one- a boy), her deliveries, her abortions, her still births, her uterus, her vagina (no pain, no discharge, no ulcers), her menses (regular, three days), her views on wife-beating (its ok if the wife makes a mistake (like a long hair in the dal, f’r instance), but my mard doesn’t hit me, no sir- eyes suddenly cast down) on the 14-odd sheets in front of me.

Something was amiss in Kunti’s data. She is 16 now, its been two and a half years odd since she had gotten married. She has one kid now, so far so normal (yes, I did mean to use that word, so go figure), but she had become pregnant once before. Her son is just five months old, she’s just given him his third DPT/OPV immunisation shot a few weeks back. Her previous pregnancy had been a stillbirth or an abortion. But because the investigator had not been too careful in taking the answers, or perhaps had not checked the concordance of the girl’s response with the facts, both answers were reported in different parts of the questionnaire. We were stymied. Where do we put the previous pregnancy? So we did a little detecting work:

Her son was a full term delivery, and was 5 months old: she had turned 16 a short while back, about one month back. So lets say she was 14 years and 11 months when her son was conceived (5+9 months back; her age now about 16 years and one month). She got married when she was 13-and-a-half, and she conceived about 4-5 months after she got married, so lets say 13 years and 11 months? So was it a stillbirth, or an abortion? If it was a stillbirth and a full term, as one part of the questionnaire assured us, then that meant she gave birth when she was 14 years and 8 months. After this exhausting process, she got a break of abt 3 months before she conceived again.

Again, if it were an abortion, and induced, as the form assured us, why did she abort at all? If they were so keen to have a kid, then why did they abort the foetus at this stage? (note that I use “they” with care; abortion in a 13 year old girl married and living at her in-laws place is very unlikely to be primarily her own decision) It can’t have been concern for her health, as evinced by her almost immediate conception and successful delivery. Could it be that the stillbirth hypothesis was true?

“Well”, a colleague piped up, “what if the first foetus was a girl? Then they may have wanted it gotten rid of immediately, that would also explain the hurry to get pregnant soon.” It is to the credit of our cultural conditioning that noone questioned this possibility as being too absurd or macabre, but instead nodded in agreement and said that this is probably what happened, you’re right.

Yet there were detractors. An event like a stillbirth has a profound effect on the psyche of a girl; she would be unlikely to misreport such an event. It is more likely that the investigator would have reported it wrong, mistaking a stillbirth for an abortion. So stillbirth, thrown out the door, made a surreptitious re-entry through the window. There was less supplementary information about the abortion (how many months, where, etc), that sort of pointed to the possibility of a stillbirth.

I think it was at this point that one of us saw the precariousness of our discussion. We were calmly discussing figures, forgetting that kunti was standing at the other end of the column of numbers that detailed the inmates of her uterus over the last 2-and-a-half years. In case u didn’t know, dear reader, when a girl conceives, at the point of conception, her body stops growing physically. So there was kunti, forever stuck at 13 years and 11 months, spawning children through the next 10-odd years of her life, and then waiting to become a powerful mother-in-law or a proud grandmother, whichever came first (the first is for the sons, the second for daughters). Babies grow at more or less the same rate no matter how old the mom, perhaps better fed if they are known to be boys. So you have a 2.5 kilogram bawling mass of flesh and bone, all writhing limbs and bulbous head, pushing and straining at mom’s pussy, chin-to-breast, shoulders-at-right-angles…phew. Like pushing a desk out of your vagina, to quote Rachel from F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Only, of course, that it’s a 14 year -old- cunt, innit? That’s when most girls in upper class urban India go to the ninth grade, think of what subjects to major in eventually, and argue with their parents about grunge music and the right to stay out after 8. Kunti, meanwhile, is busy, either lying on her back and getting laid by a 21 year old youth eager to experiment the moves he’s seen in the x-rated vcd he rented from his friend, and also to prove he’s a man by knocking up his bride before the year is over. And after his splattering ejaculate has impregnated her super-fertile uterus, there she is, nine months later, in roughly the same position, pushing desks, a la Rachel.

Then at 35-odd, there she is, a grand old woman, perhaps with a uterus so bruised and torn that she has a prolapse, or perhaps with a uterus removed by some kindly doctor who murmurs “youre done with it after all, we might as well knock it off” (please translate into vernacular), with such a world-weariness and brusqueness about the sex thing that her husband, scarce 7-9 years older than her, decides to seek it elsewhere, maybe in another wife, maybe with an accommodating lady in the village/next village/market town, or with one of his nieces/daughters in law.

Do you wonder why I feel a faint sense of revulsion and distaste when people swear by our old culture, and how the villages are pure and true, and how western influence and modernity has sullied our great heritage?

Then again, maybe I’m being melodramatic.


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