Her story remains unchanged

Vinod Khanna

About a century ago, the birth of a daughter was a cause for worry, not only in India, but in other parts of the world too. WB Yeats expressed this worry in A Prayer for My Daughter, a poem he wrote in 1919: I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour; and heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower. Outlining the reasons for the worry, he writes: For arrogance and hatred are the wares; peddled in the thoroughfares.

India was deeply suffering from this malady at that time. The word ‘dukhtar-kushi’, which meant the killing of a newborn daughter, was as much in vogue then as is female foeticide now. People weren’t kind to the birth of a daughter. There being no method to know the gender of a foetus in those days, they used to do the next best thing in their view — snuff out life that was yet to bloom. A word was given out for public consumption that the child was stillborn. Everyone in the town knew what it really meant.

That my mom survived this onslaught during her birth in 1916 was a miracle of sorts. She used to tell us how.

The fact that her family lived near the resting place of the Sufi saint Baba Farid in Pakpattan — now in Pakistan — had no effect on my maternal grandfather’s predilections. A typical feudal lord, he had all the conservative attributes signifying male supremacy. He had already done away with two infant daughters before my mother was born.

Mom used to fall silent while narrating the story. Maybe she missed her sisters. There used to be a lump in her throat while narrating the tragic details. After clearing her throat, she never forgot to thank ‘Angrez da raj’ for her survival. Before her birth, the British had passed a law declaring ‘dukhtar-kushi’ a crime which attracted capital punishment. But that alone could not have saved her. What saved her was the strict implementation of this law.

Shortly before her birth, a distant relative of my maternal grandfather was held guilty of the crime and sentenced to death. This scared my mother’s progenitor. He developed cold feet when the arrival of yet another daughter was announced to him.

But has anything changed since then? The declining male-female ratio is ample testimony to the fact that the more the government tries to bring about a change, more the things remain the same. The laws may have been made strict, but it is the implementation that matters. Despite the diktat of Guru Nanak, ‘So kyon manda akhiye, jit jamme rajan’, we have continued to objectify the weaker sex like never before; the ever-increasing number of rape incidents, acid attacks and the killing of a girl child bear evidence to it.

Coming back to Yeats, the Second Coming is surely required, for we humans have failed to stem the rot wrought upon the born and unborn girl child.

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Emperor of all maladies

Rajiv Sharma

I AM the most serious disorder of modern times. I have spared almost none. Every passing day, I am making deep inroads into the health of society and analysts are startled at the ferocious rate of my spread. I am more lethal than all viruses. I keep on corroding the mental and social well-being of people. With no cure in sight, the coming generations may have no option, but to bear the brunt of my fury ceaselessly.

I eat into intellect, intelligence, sensibilities and humanity to survive and grow. I am the only affliction known to the world that thrives on misery and agony. Every time I see the burning of stubble in the countryside leading to the choking of millions of people, I grow in proportion. Child abuse, criminal assault on women and acid attacks hone my stinging tentacles.

Beggars in streets, choked sewers, potholed roads, stray cattle and rash driving snuffing out innocent lives help me sustain. When people turn their heads the other way on coming across accident victims, when eve-teasers, hooligans and snatchers have a field day, I get a shot in the arm. When corrupt officials get promoted and scamsters get elected, I flourish.

When votes are asked for in the name of religion, when vigilantes rule the roost, when innocents are lynched and the downtrodden are left to die after being beaten up, I am on cloud nine. When sexual offenders at workplace escape unpunished, when babies die in a government hospital for want of oxygen, I grow in stature.

When society is divided in the name of caste, creed and religion, when roads are blocked and buses set on fire to prove that might is right, when temples are built by encroaching upon public parks and when hatred rules, I am immensely gratified.

When the guardians of the law hunt down people and pin them down before the camera, when youngsters leave their country to settle abroad, in droves, when an offer of free smartphone or atta and dal decides which way the voters would vote, I continue to thrive.

When issues of environmental pollution, unemployment, depleting groundwater table, rampant use of insecticides and pesticides, farmers’ suicides, lack of doctors and essential medicines in government-run dispensaries, rising number of deaths due to drug addiction and communicable diseases take a backseat, I get a boost.

When speaking your mind may land you in the league of secessionists and the imposition of digital curfew earns the silent approval of the majority, I feel honoured.

I am ‘indifference’. I am relentlessly at work by corroding the emotional and intelligence quotient of the people of the country. I am devouring humanity and the sensitivity of the host without him ever realising the immensity of devastation I am capable of unleashing, if left unchecked.

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Mission impossible had its moments

Wg Cdr BS Kalara (retd)

Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away, goes the saying. Having served in the Air Force, the stirrings within kept tugging at me even after I hung up my boots. But the approaching Republic Day reminds of another flag-hoisting occasion, the Independence Day, when I tried to unfurl the Tricolour in a terrorist-infested area of Lal Chowk in Srinagar, which was out of bounds for the people.

In July 2016, came the news that terrorists had given an ultimatum not to hoist the flag there. Those who tried to do so would face the consequences. A youth club of Rajasthan decided to defy the order. I contacted the leader of the organisation who asked me to meet at Jammu. The group was to later reach Srinagar on the afternoon of August 15. I booked my air ticket for Srinagar to be in time for the ceremony.

Later, I received a message from the airlines that all flights to Srinagar had been cancelled in view of the curfew there. I decided to travel by road. Due to problems in communication, contact could not be established with the group. With low clouds all around and streaks of lightning, it started to drizzle. But with determination, I drove cautiously and reached Udhampur late in the evening.

At dawn, I commenced my journey. A group of locals stopped my vehicle and advised me to go back but I continued. Lal Chowk was hardly 13 km when I ran into a naka. ‘You cannot go further, there is a curfew in Srinagar and no vehicle is allowed beyond this point,’ a policeman said. Parking my vehicle at a nearby hotel, I took out my bag containing the National Flag and some eatables and moved towards Lal Chowk through the dingy lanes.

Lal Chowk was hardly a kilometre away and going back would have been disappointing, I reached a military post and narrated the purpose of my visit to the Subedar in charge. He respected my sentiments but was in no mood to let me proceed. Circumventing the military post, I reached the main Srinagar highway. While I was engrossed in my thoughts, a constable approached me.

I was taken to a police post and questioned. I was asked if I had been to Pakistan for arms training or if I knew the technique of making bombs. Nothing could be established even after interrogating me. I was then moved to a hall where I saw people waiting for the disposal of their cases.

A police constable then brought a declaration form in Urdu which I was made to sign before they let me free.

I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I had failed to hoist the Tricolour despite having driven over 500 km in poor weather conditions, and on the other, there was a sense of exhilaration at having done my bit. The country is free, no doubt, but in fetters. It is the chains that have to be shaken off for its people to realise their potential.

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Safe space in a hashtag

Jaspreet Singh

AS the online space grows bigger, broader and deeper, and also noisier, it is not easy to discern and interpret issues on it. While privacy is tossed up in the air with fakes governing the matrix, it has provided safe and inexhaustible space to raise voice and opinions. Both safety and threat are mingled in the cyber environment. If you are on it, you may have an idea about the wonderful attributes of social media. A hashtag trending on Twitter can become news the next day, provided it has news value. What is trending today is not trending tomorrow, which means today is more important than yesterday. Every issue is trivialised.

The changed dynamics of social media manifest itself in the last decade, with the availability of the Internet at a cheaper rate than before. Introverts, extroverts, and all rank and file have found a safe space in the hashtag. From #MeToo and #Timesup to now #CAB or CAA, it is easy to target your audience which is fragmented. Breaking the big story with the help of a hashtag has far-reaching consequences and effects. Since we cannot register and start a hashtag on anything and everything, we have to select an attention-grabbing element. A word has a meaning in a sentence, and a sentence has a meaning in the paragraph, but a hashtag has to be a phrase or a word for immersive, interactive and receptive purposes.

It has been over seven years since I joined social media, but its surprising power has grown considerably, leaving people baffled. The emission is continuous, uninterrupted and giving us a sense that something is happening round the clock, even when we are sleeping or doing an activity. It is seeping in us a fear of missing out. We are creating hashtags like #JOMO (joy of missing out) to counter the anxiety. In the age of hashtags, nothing is personal, private and permanent. Now that everyone is on social media and trying hard to engage with one another, businesses are also launched on social media with the conscious slanting of hashtags in a popular culture.

A reflection of society, social media is changing. People are adapting to the fast changes. How does this change us? It is making us more image-conscious and managers of our impressions online. We are not what we are portraying ourselves online. It is a thing about social media that it has drawn everyone. Everything is a hashtag and it is our way to express our emotions: pain, grief, happiness, headache. Divided into the world of atoms (physical) and world of bits (digital), we are both digitally and physically present. Digitally, we are safe till no one actuates the process of regulating it. Physically, we are safe, till we are voicing our thoughts and acting as per norms of social conduct. A constitution that contains rules written in hashtags might solve the dangerously irresponsible technology, such as face recognition or deep fakes and cheap fakes, but it will be left far behind in the Internet matrix that has become self-governing and growing.

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A fragrance found & lost

Randeep Dhillon Mand

Her grimy fingers ran over the glossy pages of my daughter’s book of Russian fairytales. The fascination in her eyes was unmistakable as she gazed at the vivid illustrations of galloping horses, talking dolls and twinkling trees. Gradually, my presence in the room registered on her, yet she looked into my eyes nonchalantly, blissfully unaware of the boundaries she had crossed till her sister reprimanded her, ‘Khushboo! Don’t touch Didi’s books!’

Snatching away the book, the older sister replaced it back on the bookshelf and handed her a piece of cloth to carry on dusting the furniture.

She was Khushboo, the youngest in the family of our house help. Often she would accompany her elder sisters as they juggled their work shifts at different houses.

There were numerous objects and toys in the house that could have held her attention. However, I soon discovered it was the books on the shelf and the flowers in the garden that enticed her. She spent most of the time playing there, humming to herself and smelling the flowers in bloom. She would run around in the garden with gay abandon, her unruly mop of curls let loose, unflinchingly facing the disapproving stares of her sisters.

‘Khushboo, the joyous fragrance!’ I would think to myself. Once she pointed at a sprawling bush of ‘lady of the night’ growing outside my bedroom window. ‘No scent!’ she said as if mocking my choice of plant. ‘Raat ki rani’ gives out a mesmerising scent in the evenings,’ I informed her. ‘In that case, I would take it home and smell it at night.’

Before I could stop her, she had already plucked a handful of green-creamy white flowers. ‘Khushboo, the unbridled fragrance!’ I could only mutter to myself.

Her resolute bearing reflected in her firm and beautiful handwriting too. After playing to her heart’s content, she would settle down to do her homework. She studied at a school on the premises of a temple.

After a while, her visits to my place abruptly stopped. I enquired about her from her sisters and the brief reply was what I had always feared. ‘Mother found work for her.’

Disturbed, I called up her mother in the evening. ‘They are giving her a good salary. Even if she studies, what else would she do?’ I had to fall back.

One bitter cold morning, while driving through a narrow lane, I briefly halted in front of a house to let a car coming from the opposite direction pass when my daughter exclaimed, ‘Mama look, Khushboo!’

Holding a hose-pipe in hand, she was washing the driveway of the house, looking and acting precisely the way her sisters do. Hair tightly braided, dupatta fastened around the waist and moving mechanically. Energy intact, however, the spirit was broken. As I drove off, I sighed, ‘Khushboo, the lost fragrance!’

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Lesson in brotherhood from Sargodha

Rajan Kapoor

The entire country is in the grip of anger against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Protesters are out on the streets; some innocent lives have been lost in the frenzy. Who is at fault is a matter of investigation. CAA guarantees citizenship rights to a few select persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries. But it keeps Muslims out of its fold. The government gives its own logic to exclude them from CAA. Technically, it may be correct. But on humanitarian grounds, the Act seems to be harsh on one community. It is a fact that we are cut into different shapes by man-made sharp tools of caste, colour and religion. But two incidents during the ongoing protests have proved that human beings are basically peace-loving creatures, driven by strong feelings of love and camaraderie. In one incident, a Hindu formed a human chain with the help of his friends to escort the baraat of a Muslim woman. In another incident, a Sikh farmer donated his 16-marla plot for the construction of a mosque and a community centre for Muslim families living in his village in Punjab. What a gesture! These two humanitarian acts have come at a time when the forces of divisiveness are in full control. This clearly reflects that humans are basically emotional beings, who believe in the power of sharing and caring. They are simple and do not attach much significance to the religion and other attributes of others when it comes to extending a helping hand to their brothers and sisters. Many tales of Partition bear testimony to this fact.

I share such a story which was told to me by one of my uncles who was an eyewitness to the incident. It so happened that my uncle’s family decided to move to Ambala from Sargodha in Pakistan after Partition. A gang of Muslims got wind of their migration plan and decided to finish them off. When the headman of the village came to know about the sinister plan of the Muslim youths of his village, he provided full security to the family. He escorted them to the Wagah border. Before departing, the headman gave a promise to the family that he would take care of their property and animals.

My uncle told me that the headman kept his word. He sold off their property and animals. The money thus made was handed over to the family after 20 years of Partition. Before dying, he had instructed his son to hand over what belonged to my uncle’s family at any cost. His son made honest efforts to trace the family. Once he came to know about the whereabouts of the family, he personally paid them a visit and handed over the money.

The headman of Sargodha did it to keep the brotherhood between the Hindus and Muslims intact.

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They, too, bear the weight

Raj Bhalla

I was brought up in a sea-faring family, my father being a marine engineer. I got married to an Air Force officer, having little knowledge about the life in the armed forces. After the expiry of his leave, we moved to Halwara, where my husband was posted. Buying curtains and a kerosene stove for the house were the first priorities for setting up the new unit. Being the newlywed, I got preferential treatment. Then came the disturbing news of our posting to Bagdogra in 1969. The stress of moving with bag and baggage to a new place was perturbing. A colleague from Bagdogra informed us about the availability of a basha which would provide us some shelter on our arrival.

After landing at Bagdogra, I realised what a basha was. In an area of 25×15 ft, we had a small living room, a kitchen, a western-style washroom, and a small bedroom. During the rainy season, umbrellas protected us from the rainwater dripping from the thatched roof. We took life in our stride.

In November 1971, after sunset, we would hear the sound of firing across the border which gradually intensified. This was followed by a blackout in the camp, creating a feeling of uneasiness. One evening, we were told to vacate the accommodation and move to a safer place as war was imminent. I along with my son flew to Kolkata, my home for 20 years, to join my parents. Then came the address by PM Indira Gandhi declaring war with Pakistan.

In Kolkata, too, the blackout was a common feature. Any news on the casualties would upset us. Those were the days of poor connectivity, no Internet, no mobile phones, it was difficult to get through to Bagdogra to talk to my husband. All the time, I was busy scanning newspapers or listening to the radio to know about the war scenario. When we heard about the surrender of the Pakistan army in East Pakistan, we were happy that the war was coming to an end. I flew back to Bagdogra after the declaration of ceasefire. The few weeks I spent at Kolkata were filled with tension and anxiety.

In 1977, we moved from Jodhpur to the Air Force Station at Hindon. Then started my struggle for school admission of my only child. I visited a number of public schools and waited for hours outside the office of the principal. When I met one, he showed little concern about the ordeal of defence personnel. I got only a few words of compassion and not a seat for my son. I realised the so-called public schools were not meant for public. We spent many sleepless nights fearing my son would lose one year because of mid-session posting.

Though men in uniform fight the war, their families are not isolated from the sufferings which they share with the men. Living in separated married accommodation, frequent postings, schooling for children etc., are a nightmare which many of us have faced in life.

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