Thursday, 31 May 2012

Musings: Summer song

Summer is… the sizzle of heat through the asphalt that fries your thoughts to a crisp, as the grey swirl of smoke from the exhaust in front addles your vision, the haze of the day swathes you in a cloak that clogs your sinuses and smothers your olfactory nerves, perhaps forever. 

Summer is… the sound of your neighbour’s shower and her voice raised in old-world song, out of tune. Just the tinkle of her bangles and the trickling sound of water soothes your nerves and allows you to dwell on images of waterfalls in your smoky mind.

Summer is… the pile of watermelons piled Everest-high by the roadside, green crusted and red-bodied, waiting for the first, crunchy cooling bite. The juice dribbles down your chin and bathes your neck, just as rivulets of sweat snake their way down your back and turn your smock into a towel.

Summer is… the rattle of cooking vessels next door being scrubbed by their maid at the crack of dawn. The power cuts have eaten into the short, restless stretch of rest, and transformed the night into a nightmare.

Summer is… the whining of the baby in the cradle because the mosquitoes and flies will not let her sleep. As her tiny limbs flail and kick away her bottle, she has no inkling of the procession of summers that life has in store for her.

Summer is… when the madness of the city jars on your nerves, when every screech, every honk, every gust of hot air from the neighbourhood drain makes you want to tear your hair out by the handful. Or head for the hills for a solitary getaway.

Summer is… when you can watch your best friend’s freckles multiply by the passing hour, as sunscreens and sunblocks do little to deter the almighty sun’s determination to blot her flawless complexion.

Summer is… when coconut water spiked with lime and honey seems like nectar, a sip for celestial beings. That’s when tea seems too strong and coffee too heady, except when a Tom Collins or a Kahlua on the rocks tastes like a drink divine.

Summer is… when everybody on the street seems to be on a short fuse, ready to explode over cricket scores or examination mark-sheets or even the decibel level of your car stereo. What happened to the fun and games you all had together, you wonder, before the heat frazzled your heads.

Summer is… the call of the mountains, the gurgle of the river, the cawing of crows outside your window at daybreak. Why can’t the wretched birds sleep longer, you hiss in anger, while the air-conditioner rattles and rumbles its way through power fluctuations.

Summer is… the lapping of frothy waves at your toes, the gush of blue that smothers you waist-deep. It is the soothing cool of the sand beneath your soles, the shells that beckon you to scoop them up by the fistful. It is the ice-cream cone that drips down your elbow faster than you can lick it up ~ and is gone before you have had your fill.

Summer is… when shorts and skimpy T-shirts feel as if you have too many clothes on. And that first glorious bite of the ripe golden mango ~ luscious and juicy and sweet as a love poem.

Summer is… vacations and holiday homework and escape from the routine.

Summer is… my very least favourite season.

Would you beg to differ?

(, 2002)

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Musings: Sans Science

In front of the House of Science with my classmates at school. I'm seated, second from the right.

Decades ago, when schooling was different (and 10 + 2 was a haze in the future), we had to pick an optional stream for the Indian School Certificate (ISC) exam once our Std. VIII exams were done. That meant we could study either Science or Arts in the last three years at school, culminating in Std. XI.

At 13-plus, the choice loomed larger than a monster in our lives. How was I to choose? Should I base my decision on my marks, which showed soaring scores in English, Biology, Geography and Health Science, while the numbers took a drastic dip in Physics, Chemistry and Maths? Or should I give priority to my close bonding with my best friends ~ the very essence of residential school life in Jaipur ~ most of whom were opting for Science? Did it make sense to consult my class teachers, who kept pitchforking me into every inter-school or inter-house contest for dramatics, elocution, debating, even panel discussions? No, that would be insane. I’d probably talk circles around those sane souls.

Confused by the profusion of potential directions, like stray shafts of sunlight in a forest thicket, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t permitted to opt for just English poetry, medieval history, cartography, pottery, theatre ~ and perhaps hockey! There seemed to be no school course on earth that made that combination possible. But why?

What made the choice even more difficult was the fact that the brightest girl in our class (our icon of sorts) excelled at everything ~ athletics, hockey, art, every subject under the sun, even the popularity ratings! And she had opted for Science!

Science seemed by far the more glamorous option than mere Arts. Somehow, Einstein and Galileo exuded as more radiant aura than George Orwell or Jane Austen; advanced maths appeared more alluring than Shakespeare. Or so I thought then….

A bad bout of fever just before my Std. VIII final exams put paid to my chances of allowing my teachers to evaluate my talent, no matter how shadowy. Stuck in a bed in the infirmary, doused with green syrups and red, I wasn’t allowed to appear for my finals (perhaps the only time I wanted to). So, what was I to do?

Back home in Madras (not yet Chennai), promoted on the basis of past performance, the looming decision threatened to ruin my winter vacations. Science or Arts? Which was it to be? And how was I to choose?

And then, my father decided to take the matter in hand. “Have you made up your mind?” Baba asked one day after lunch, just as I was all set to plunge into the pages of Gone with the Wind.

“Not yet, Baba,” I said, “but I think I’d like to take Science.”  

“Why?” he persisted.

“I don’t know. I just feel like it,” I responded.

“It’s a good idea. But it only makes sense if you choose a career that is science-based. What would you like to do after college?”Baba explained patiently.

“I haven’t yet decided. I still have a few more years to go…”

“Do you want to be a doctor?” he said, helpfully.

“Never. I hate the sight of blood.”

“An engineer?”

“What will I do with all those machines and gizmos?”

“How about architecture?”

“Too much of maths in that…”

“A bio-chemist?”

“What do they do?”

And so, after we’d progressed down a list of 40 professions, Baba asked a final question before giving up, “Then, why do you want to take up Science?”

“Because all the clever girls are taking Science!”

And that’s how I came to study and celebrate Arts for the rest of my life….

(Sunday Herald, 1998)

Art: Khoj 2002 ~ The mind is a fertile field

Hema Upadhyay's letter to her parents sprouts in ragi

(I wrote this piece in 2002) 

Strappingh Michel Tuffery pats the tethered bull. "It tickles, does it?" he asks the large-eyed creature from a Mysore bovine sanctuary. "I won't hurt you. You're my Anna, I'm your little brother, your Thamba." Ritually tattooed from his waist to his knees, the Maori artist gently paints the bull's skinny shanks. Gradually, a tantalising red-and-black geometry emerges, while the artist and his work appear to blur into one.

"I feel visually spoilt in India," explains Wellington-based Michel, 36, at the Khoj 2002 International Artists' Workshop (October 19 to November 1) at Mysore's Le Olive Garden resort, that opened a local window into global art intersections. "Our family's from Samoa and Tahiti in the Pacific. From childhood, the cows and bulls of New Zealand have stuck in my head. But we've no respect for animals. When there's a water shortage, who suffers — the people or the bulls? To me, India seems like a Utopia for bulls."

As Michel erupts into a conceptually-motivated, masked "bull fight" on the Open Day, notions of art as painting or sculpture are collectively jettisoned. Taking off from a collage of corned beef cans blue-tacked to a wall, responding to an explosion of crackers taped to drawn bull-heads, he engages in a livewire performance that stuns the local populace. It signals a creative take-off, a careering off the beaten track, a time ripe for redefinitions.

But Michel wasn't unique among the workshop's 12 international and 12 Indian artists addressing individualistic concerns through local stimuli. In shifting the base of the high-profile, five-year-old Khoj artists' initiative from Delhi's Modinagar to the South for the first time, they engaged with "issues of new internationalism in the visual arts", according to a backgrounder. An offshoot of the Triangle Workshop in New York State in 1982, the brainchild of sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and collector Robert Loder, which resulted in the 1985 Thupelo Workshop in South Africa, Khoj represented the Indian colours of the enterprise.

What local stimuli did the artists respond to? Australia's Mandy Ridley, continuing her questioning of cultural identity through handcrafted objects, offered fluorescent plastic bags, each adorned with a contrasting rangoli cutout. Assaulted by a cacophony of Indian sounds, tantalised by alternate notions of beauty, Canadian academic and artist Gisele Amantea set up an audio piece of bathing sounds, juxtaposed against a delicate drawing of a pale hand captured between two mehndhi-rich ones. An intercultural exchange? Or donning The Other's identity? Maybe just cultural cross-dressing.

Closer home, Surekha from Bangalore struck gold at Mysore's Raju and Brothers studio. These reprints from old negatives, framed against red-bordered mirrors, unveiled the saga of the traditional jasmine braid that captures the cycle of Indian womanhood from birth to puberty, marriage and motherhood. Resonating touches in Surekha's continuing explorations of studio photography? A study blue curtain, and festivity-linked strings of blue lights.

Drawing on diaporic inspiration, Swiss-born Christoph Storz, who shuttles between Aarau and Bangalore, chose a vendor's trolley as his artistic tool after laboriously weeding a kolam-like path through a parthenium patch. "My art was homage to the local pushcart vendor," he elaborates, as marbles roll randomly on the trolley he trundles. "He sets out in the morning, not knowing which roads to follow or where his wares will sell. I was trying to explore his uncertain path."

Echoing Storz's frame of reference. Amsterdam-based and Mumbai-trained Mayura Subhedar, 29, tried to inject familiar feelings into an alien ambience by plastering a walled curve with rubbings of coconut palms and other artefacts from the resort, while studying the sway of shadowy fronds from a red oxide bench she built in. "My site-specific work relates to locating myself in a space," she explains. "I had to work my way through being a `foreigner,' so I had to jettison some baggage."

How did others cope with the workshop situation? Committed to socially-engaged practice, British artist Amy Plant treated her first Indian encounter as news by launching a tabloid, not as inquest but as inquiry. What appeared on its pages? Snippets of Khoj interludes. An interview with a local snake-catcher. A report on a burst pipe onsite. "It gave me a sense of the fabric of the place. So, I became a bit of a local myself," confesses Amy.

But, as local art students and lookers-on alike asked, did these free thinking experiments beyond the studio space constitute art? Or were they just radical departures from received notions? Such as the looped video installation by New Delhi's Ranbir Kaleka, 49, long based in London. Drawing on Mysore's Rangayana repertory theatre, he dramatised a very-Indian, quirky narrative, captured through painted wooden window frames, threaded through with appropriate Hindi film songs. "I treat video art as a democratic tool, almost like a sketch-pad, toying with ideas I've had for a while," Ranbir offers. "In India, video art still lags behind the West. It's useful to look at art within its age, time and context."

At Khoj, the theatrical found new interpretations through H.K. Dwarkanath, a stage designer at Rangayana, and Bangalore's Babu Eshwar Prasad, known for his elemental symbolism on flat hued canvases. Realised three-dimensionally, highlighted by theatrical lighting, Babu's set-like visual metaphors quickened to life by night. Inspired by the Mysore royal family's black-and gold carriage onsite, Dwarkanath mined their palace for inspiration. The result? An array of ghost-like plaster hands, shrouded in pale netting, sprout almost organically from the grass. Could they be supplicants for royal flavours? Or merely palace hands at work?

Other works took more topical, even political, cues. Sri Lanka's Sarath Kumarasiri touched on the ongoing Cauvery water dispute through swathes of flowing terracotta and blue cotton that unrolled onto a rocky incline, swathed in recent headlines. As literal, but more provocative, was an installation by Nigeria's Jacob Jiri, who garlanded a photograph of a baby abandoned in a dustbin, footnoted by a "soiled" sanitary towel. "I was making a statement, however offensive, about population control, provoked by the streets of Mumbai and Mysore," he stresses. What of the Gujarat strike? It surfaced in Baroda-based printmaker Vijay Bagodi's tented work, where sickles assume weapon-like overtones.

Alternate voices, couched expressively? Ragi sprouts from the soil reveal a letter to her parents in Baroda from Mumbai's Hema Upadhyay, a new turn to communications networks. Stridently, her citymate Reena Saini cues her uterus-based symbolism into an engagement with national integration through locally-crafted, tricolour-hued, natural fibre shapes strewn with rusty tools that flow over the floor like a river in spate.

Malaysia's Chang Yoong Chia installed moulded figures glued to the idiot box at the base of grouped coconut palms, in a "not conscious comment on urban lifestyles. While the TV is both intimate and universal, there's less intimacy between people today."

Often, complex issues surfaced through personal contexts. These included the Nix Art Museum by Bangladesh's Mahababur Rahman, a transparent tent studded with camouflage garments and war toys, in a pacifist statement buttressed by the auteur's cycle-borne daily performances. Bangalore's Biju Jose paid tribute to his late father's unlauded mechanical engineering drawings, propped like a musical score on stands that rose and fell to the shape of the backdrop of the Chamundi Hills, with a live horse installed by flickering lamplight to enhance realisation.

Dissimilar dimensions? The beauty versus ornamentation debate was realised by Brazil-born Berlin artist Carla Guagliardi's unadorned, curved red brick walls, offering "different feelings of space, newer perspectives of the same old thing", enhancing her exploration of spaces and water properties in Brazil and Europe. Enthused by Mysorean strands, Bangalore's Smitha Cariappa visually interpreted the local silk industry, transformed into hut-like spaces embellished by rangoli, hanks of silk, and symbolic silkworm evolution. N.N. Rimzon from Thiruvananthapuram, known for his innovative installations, chose a quieter note at Khoj — a series of locally-derived, yet tentative, drawings.

On another plane, Shambhavi from New Delhi chose to extend her horizons through a startling disc of rich blues and browns, made of iron, wood, cotton cloth, acrylic, graphite and oils, hung from the rafters. A neon-studded lamp enhanced the perspective, aided by fluttering pigeons on the beams.

Perhaps the most unusual participant at Khoj 2002 was Tibetan traditional painter Penpa Yaseel, 28, from the Tashi Lhundo monastery at Bylakuppe. Sitting amidst the silken splendour of gorgeous thangkas, Penpa explains, "I was trained in this style when I was 13. I came to India in exile in 1996. I'll never tamper with our sacred paintings, but I now feel I can do any kind of painting, maybe even depict Tibetan lifestyles."

Can art remain infinitely open-ended in our questioning age? When will its borderlines with technology blur forever? Can Khoj-like camps generate global amity? These questions remain unanswered despite the questing at Khoj.

As Khoj's central coordinator Pooja Sood observed in a recent brochure, the communal enterprise that has touched over a hundred artists is "more in the nature of an impetus rather than a period of sustained reflection". Ranbir concurs, "Workshops like this can stimulate thought, though perhaps not complete execution." A germ of thought that could sprout to fruition in the future?

(The Hindu Sunday Magazine 2002)

Monday, 28 May 2012

Issues: Parikrma Humanity Foundation ~ Care to share

(It was in 2005 that I wrote this piece about a Bangalore-based NGO that encourages underserved children to dream big -- and finds the funds for their dreams through corporate wizardry).

"I want to be a soldier. But my father wants me to be a doctor," says 11-year-old Selvakumar in his blue-and-green uniform, as he makes his way to the school fish pond where a blue lotus is in bloom. "When I'm older, I'll know what I really want to be."

The bright-eyed boy has been in school for about two years. His parents are cobblers in a slum. His self-confidence today stems from the fact that he's at one of Bangalore's three Parikrma Humanity Foundation Centres for Learning. Based at Koramangala, Jayanagar and Sahakaranagar, these are based on an e2e or end-to-end pragmatic business model.

Launched in April 2003 as a non-profit NGO, Parikrma attempts to "unleash the potential of underserved children" among the 15 lakh population in Bangalore's 800-plus slums. The city has an estimated 1.1 lakh street children. Parikrma partners with other NGOs in areas of healthcare, nutrition and family care, but its core competency is imparting quality education.

Currently serving two orphanages and 26 slum communities, Parikrma's 305 girls and 315 boys between five and 14 are drawn from households with an average of five people and a monthly income of about Rs 750. Preference is given to orphaned or abandoned children, especially those below six. Girl children are given priority, so are school-age siblings. At Parikrma, there is no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, colour or religion.

"All our children are agents of social change. They will leave our ICSE schools empowered. We'll take them to college or professional courses. We'll place them in jobs. We hope to break poverty cycles and transform communities through these children," explains Parikrma's founder-CEO, Shukla Bose, former Indian managing director of Resort Condominiums International, chosen as the national Woman Entrepreneur for 1995. "We'd like our children to look at their communities with love and respect, yet recognise that this is not necessarily the only way in life."

To begin with, Parikrma has encouraged its children to be unafraid to dream. Today, Manipur-born Zamzei Thouthang, 11, has set his sights on emulating Ronaldo on the football field — or becoming a software engineer. Naveen Muniraju, 10, could be a future ecologist, for he insists that all food waste should be consigned to a compost pit. Mohita Gunashekar, 5, would love to write children's stories once she's old enough. Jancy Mary David, 7, hopes to teach English one day.

As for Karthik Selvamani, 10, the Std. 5 student dazzled the Crossword audience during a Parikrma enacted story at a recent book launch. For his fox pundit was both quirky and brilliant. During holidays, he works at a cycle repair shop to earn enough for food. Within a year, he has progressed from introducing himself in English to addressing a group of journalists on Indian unity. His dream? To confirm for himself media reports of life on Mars!

Parikrma marketing head Vivek Raju says, "Our teachers are, in many ways, surrogate parents. They know details about every child in class."

Drawing on their corporate background, the Parikrma business model makes sound sense. On how Levi's agreed to a two-year MoU on the Sahakaranagar centre, Raju says, "We are one of the two social programmes they fund, the larger grantee. Like us, Levi's was interested in the community, youth and women's empowerment. We got them to extend their interest to education. They liked the holistic way we affected a child's life. Besides the school, they now fund development across the 26 Bangalore communities we work with."

UK-based Royal Resorts thought likewise, when it sponsored the Koramangala centre, where the children have rendered their dreams pictorially on the outer walls. Dell pitched in with state-of-the-art computer labs for the Koramangala and Jayanagar schools. The software company, Technology Learning Information, sponsors a classroom, while its staff volunteers time to mentor the children.

Yahoo! is sponsoring another school at Nandini Layout, slated to open next year. Until then, its 39 first-time learners are being schooled at Jayanagar. Sindhoor Pangal, voicing why the Yahoo! Employee Foundation India (YEFI) chose this option, says, "While YEFI has the passion and the means to help, Parikrma has the experience and the expertise to do so. We want to empower these children with the quality of education that will one day make them our co-workers."

To Kalpana Singh, Parikrma's academic head, education is about widening horizons. So, at least Rs 15,000 will be spent on each child annually. Including visits to the theatre and concerts, to museums and scientific centres, even participation in inter-school sports meets. Regular health check-ups and psychological aid are assured. De-addiction of select parents, vocational training for older siblings, and three nutritious meals a day are programmed in.

In October 2003, Parikrma signed an MoU with the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike to help 12 of the corporation's poorest performing schools. After five months of intensive, post-school Class 10 tutorials by retired government teachers, who were set new goals, the pass percentage among 875 students zoomed from nine to 31 per cent. In 2004-05, a similar MoU impacted 4,783 students from Classes 8-10.

Says Raju, "Those who invest in Parikrma are actually investing in a child's future. As a sustainable model, we'd like to create a franchise. ING Vysya has given us a fund with which to market our programme. Last year, at a free concert they sponsored, 7,000 executives attended and over 4,000 committed half a day's salary to us. This year, the funds will allow us to reach 5,000 more. Thus, we're creating a sustainable flow of inputs."

Star TV has offered free screening of two powerful Parikrma shorts, funded by an anonymous donor.
As Shukla points out, "In organisations we think big and long-term. Why can't we do the same in the social sector?"

For more information, visit

(The Hindu Business Line 2005)

Monday, 21 May 2012

Books: Vidya Virkar ~ A page from an old book

(I did this piece in 2003)

It's tough to tread in the footsteps of a legend. It's equally difficult to partner one. The scenario acquires additional shades when the legend happens to be post-independence entrepreneur T.N. Shanbhag, who set up the Strand Book Stall in Mumbai in 1948 and was recognised for his contribution to the Indian book trade with a 2003 Padmashri.

But to Vidya Virkar, partner in Bangalore's eight-year-old Strand Book Stall, these equations with her celebrated father have never stood in the way of charting new horizons.

During her formative years, the book trade seemed a far cry from her future dreams. "My background has been very eclectic," Vidya explains. "I did microbiology in a Mumbai college, and later bio-chemistry research at Cambridge. I went on to mass communication and TV direction. I was a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson in London, Lintas in Mumbai, then J. Walter Thompson in Bangalore again, before I set up Strand. I tried feature writing, too... "

That takes her back to Shanbhag. "Right from the start, Dad had always said, `Vidya, you fly. The bookshop is always there, if it calls to you at some stage'. But I knew somebody was needed to take over the baton. It's an incredible legacy and should not be allowed to waste away."

Vidya, as joint baton-holder of Strand with its annual turnover of above Rs 20 crore, has recast the brand with style. Bangaloreans look forward to competitive prices, an illuminating range of titles, and meet-the-author events.

Such as a glitzy evening with quote-a-minute U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor, the author of Riot and India: From Midnight to the Millennium at the Leela Palace Hotel in August 2002. Or the quieter release of Sahitya Akademi winner Shashi Deshpande's The Stone Women, her feminist short stories based on Indian mythology.

Ever since Strand opened in 1995, Bangaloreans have an annual date they have sworn not to miss — with the store's mega-sale. That's when teenyboppers and bibliophiles alike stock up on Dahl and Rowling, Plath and Petrarch, and every title in between, at rock-bottom prices. The cult sale scenes are replicated on a larger scale near Mumbai's Churchgate today. However, in small-town Uttar Pradesh or Orissa, book-buyers swear by the store's two-year-old Web site ( , with its assurance of quality books delivered at the door.

"The annual sale was my idea because Dad keeps ordering titles, resulting in huge stocks. It's also a way to reach a wider customer base," she says.

What kind of managerial skills were required to run the Strand at Bangalore?

"All I had to begin with was great motivation and no managerial skills. Perhaps my eclectic exposure to media and even science prepared me to deal with any situation," Vidya confesses. "It took me two years to convince Dad. Because he had built up Strand with blood, sweat and tears, at great personal sacrifice. He was very nervous that I would sink the entire ship! I learnt managerial skills on the job."

What did she master en route to success?

Staff selection to ensure personalised customer service. Stock movement in tune with market preferences. Discount delivery within fair trade norms. Event management to keep the brand in the public eye. Media interaction to heighten market value. Intellectually-inspiring talks with a difference — including one by physicist Dr Manoj Samal, who studies spiritual phenomena, reporting it scientifically and another on Gandhi by historian Ramachandra Guha.

"I never think in terms of money," Vidya stresses. "Strand is an entity that's more of an ideology of book-selling than a commercial interest. It seeks to disseminate the reading habit. Over the years, we've made books cheaper in terms of percentages. When Dad started, he offered a 20 per cent discount, which we've improved on. If books are getting more expensive by the day, so are vegetables. But I've made an effort to see that our basic minimal business needs and beyond are met."

Bangalore welcomed Strand because its Mumbai brand was so well-established.

How was it built from scratch?

Shanbhag, who was studying economics at Mumbai's St. Xavier's College, was a scholarship student from Tekkate, near Mangalore. His single indulgence? One Penguin book a month.

But while the down-at-heel student was browsing at a large bookstore, an officious staffer humiliated him. That's when Shanbhag swore he would one day open a store that stocked affordable titles and encouraged browsing. Initially, the Strand cinema house allowed him to put up two bookshelves, which caught the eye of the city's elite as they emerged from the English movies. Later, the Strand Book Stall — all of 750 sq ft — opened in Mumbai's Fort area. The legend has grown ever since.

Taking her cue from the original Strand, Vidya ensures that almost "every hour, on the hour" new titles are brought into view. "I've imbibed Dad's philosophy subliminally," she states. "Like him, I remain accessible to customers. I know their interests because I've seen them buy. Sometimes, I try to guide them into different directions."

She cites introducing numerous software engineers in this IT hub city to fiction by Arundhati Roy or Shashi Tharoor, current affairs by Gurcharan Das, or motivational or self-improvement books.

How has Vidya innovated?

To expand the awareness of IT individuals, Strand opened a store at the WIPRO campus in August. "Azim Premji of WIPRO asked me: `Vidya, do you expect my people to be reading books other than IT?' The aim is to do just that. I think people want to be more complete. After all, the top IT managers, the ones with a vision, are extremely well-read," she chuckles.

Another Strand outlet at the Infosys campus is in the offing. Within the main store, she empowered her staff to set up a full-fledged IT section. She dreams of Strand stores in other Indian metros as well.

What's special about being a woman manager?

"I tend to have a softer approach. That really works in human relations. I've been able to choose a good team, partly by intuition. That's not so different from Dad, who's a people's person. But by and large, men tend to be less people-oriented, more work and bottom line related."

Personally, what makes Vidya tick, beyond her 10.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. store? A nightly read, especially science verging on spirituality, `The Celestine Prophecy,' or Japanese authors like Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Lady Murasaki. Or listening to Beethoven, Bach or Mozart. Or interacting with customers from diverse background as individuals, often inviting them to a literary soiree instead of cocktails! And collecting art originals, including S.G. Vasudev, Navjot and Milind Nayak.

It takes daring to innovate on the life of Shanbhag's Strand. But Vidya has left an indelible impression, thanks to her people-plus personality. And her unconventional approach to bookselling, unconstrained by wisdom between book covers.

That's why Strand belongs as much to its second home in Bangalore, as it does in Mumbai today.

(The Hindu Business Line 2003)

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Issues: Democracy for children

Image: Courtesy the Concerned for Working Children

(I wrote about this unusual initiative in rural Karnataka in 2004)

WHEN the Hosangadi panchayat in Karnataka held its first gram sabha on July 24, 2004, over 100 people crowded into a room that could barely hold them all. Apart from anganwadi workers, teachers, farmers, workers and women from self-help collectives, 10 local children formed part of the group. 

At a signal from the panchayat secretary, 12-year-old Kumari strode up, clutching a huge sheaf of papers. Her voice unfaltering, her gaze clear, she read out a list of demands that children of the community had drawn up for implementation. "We need compound walls," she said. "We need playgrounds. And electricity and water for our homes." Her list, based on surveys done by village children, was substantiated by data culled from the panchayat office. Kumari's clear-eyed vision led to the adoption of these demands by the gram sabha, following a series of ward sabhas.

Kumari is just one of 1,60,000 children in Kundapur taluk, Udupi district, whose data-based inputs are being accepted as part of the 2002-2007 five-year plan. In this novel attempt at participatory government in the taluk's 56 panchayats, children have led the democratic planning process. 

This experiment raises hard-core questions. At what level are the information and discussion inputs by Kundapur's actively involved 20,000 children and adults valid? Does this signal child-responsive governance?

The Concerned for Working Children (CWC) initiated the first steps of the process. Executive director, Kundapur-based Damodar Acharya, shares his experience from the initial five gram panchayats — Kuradi, Uppunda, Balkur, Alur and Belve — where children were allowed their say in 1995-96.

"When adults started looking into the problems raised by school going children about footbridges, drinking water, the anganwadi or the location of ration shops, they found they did not have enough data," explains Acharya in Bangalore. In Balkur, through the children's or Makkala Panchayat, 13-year-old Revathi kept asking for a footbridge over a small stream, which puzzled the gathering," Acharya narrates. Adult priorities were streetlights, pucca roads, drinking water and so on.

When Revathi took the panchayat president to the site, he realised that the waters came up to the child's neck, while an adult could wade through. So, two granite slabs were sanctioned to ease her crossing.
Ground level realities surfaced through these child interventions. Through their surveys, the adults realised that, in a 3,000-strong village, nearly 60 children stopped attending school. Faced with an adult barrage of questions about cost, population impact and so on, the CWC trained the young ones to use a picture-oriented, multiple-choice questionnaire, geared to their literacy levels. In Isloor, for instance, data collected indicated the degree of alcohol and tobacco addiction in the community, and the amount squandered on substance abuse.

In coastal Uppunda, teenaged girl children trudged nearly 15 km each way daily at 3 a.m. to Alur to collect a head load of firewood, harassed by forest officials, fording streams en route.

Discussions with the Assistant Commissioner and the Deputy Forest Officer threw up the alternative of a subsidised firewood depot. But the 14-15 year olds, fought it off. Why? Because it deprived them of a peer group outing, besides personal earnings. "They said, `If there is a depot, our parents won't allow us to step out. Instead, they'll ask us to repair torn fishing nets at home.' What measures resulted from the children's inputs? In Alur, where most parents work in tile factories or the cashew industry, older siblings sought fulltime, centrally located anganwadis to sustain their own education and curtail the school dropout rate. 

Children of 14-plus expressed their preference for cashew industry employment over domestic work, safeguarding their own vulnerability and economic independence, at Rs. 25 to 40 per day. Those under age could attend classes in the factory premises.

Was there adult resistance to the experiment? "At first, adults asked why the (1996-initiated) Makkala Panchayats needed to be taught politics," stresses Acharya, "because theirs is a parallel children's government, including their own voter's list of those from six to 18, elections with their own ballot boxes in each ward and candidates with their own symbols. Even when a candidate is unopposed, ballots are cast to find out how widely he or she is supported. It is basically about the right to vote."

In one unique instance, both the defeated and elected candidates chose to represent their constituency at the ward meeting without acrimony, for hadn't they both won some votes? That provided a new angle on democracy.

For each problem, the children listed the affected families and arrived at their own solutions, appended to the costing by the local panchayat secretary or engineer. "This is the first time adults have recognised what these rural children have achieved," notes Acharya. "Secondly, in a sense, they have become community leaders and resource people for the whole block."

These politically aware children, drawn from those at work and those at school, detailed the number of houses in a village that lacked electricity. Or their long trudge to school? Or how many girls dropped out at 13, lacking an accessible high school? Or the prevalence of child marriages?

How was their data collected? In the first five panchayats, the school blocked time for their exercise. For updates, they chalked out schedules in their own free time over weeks or months, with each child visiting three or four houses.

How do others perceive this first Indian essay into child-participatory governance? Vasant Saliyana, District Minister, Udupi, feels, "It has created a high level of awareness among the elected representatives. Even more important, it has brought to the forefront our accountability to children."

Ashok Mathews Philip, executive director of the Bangalore-based South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM), responds, "I believe the child has a right to express his or her views, including political participation at even a national level. But this has to be based on informing the child objectively about a particular issue. If only we listen, we will find children have the ability to give a realistic analysis of many subjects."

Will this initiative usher in a new political order? Will Karnataka choose to replicate this model State-wide? Its future hinges on the responses of adults in positions that count.

(The Hindu Sunday Magazine 2004)