First election was a celebration

Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

When India set out on its electoral journey in 1951, the country and countrymen at large had not the vaguest idea of democracy nor of the worthies who aspired to represent them in the first Lok Sabha. I witnessed first-hand how a handful of bureaucrats took it upon themselves, sans the Election Commission and the model code of conduct, to facilitate ‘fair and free’ casting of the ballot. PM Nehru was scheduled to address an election rally at Sangrur, where my father was the District Commissioner. I accompanied him as he criss-crossed the district from dawn to dusk for a week, educating his subordinates, down to the patwaris, and the police constabulary at each thana, about the historic change-in-the-making and their responsibility to ensure calm for the judicious exercise of franchise.

The message had percolated and the common people were so enthused that they brought out their treasured artefacts such as phulkaris to decorate polling booths, adding a festive touch to the sombre exercise.

Nehru was received by the CM at Ambala, the only air strip in Punjab then. The cavalcade comprised just four automobiles, including a black limousine, courtesy the Maharaja of Patiala. On reaching the venue, Kairon Sahib introduced my father to Nehru, who shook hands. The crowd of several thousand peasants had become restive but the moment Nehru, in his signature achkan, faced them from the podium, all eyes turned upon him in hushed silence. He finished his brief exhortation of 10 minutes with a flourish, requesting the audience to get up and join him in the chorus of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai ho’. The entire town resonated with the chant.

A few years ago, I chanced upon an entry in the personal diary of a DFO from the interior of Madhya Pradesh concerning his poignant experience of the 1951 Lok Sabha polls. He had set out to establish a polling booth at Pathera village, along with a clerk, two unarmed constables, one sealed ballot-box and some stationery in a timber contractor’s truck. They traversed a 106-km bumpy ride over a dirt track. The last 32 km was in a bullock cart through a dense forest, now part of the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

By 10 am, the entire village had gathered outside the booth. Women first applied kum-kum and then garlanded the box! The DFO called out the 12 listed voters, mentioned names of the candidates, what they stood for and the significance of their vote. When the last ballot was cast by 11:30 am, they arose in unison, and led by the headman returned to their huts, chorusing ‘Bharat Mata ki jai ho!’ Two days later, the sealed box was deposited at the district headquarters treasury!

There was no cacophony of loudspeakers, candidates did not trade insulting barbs, the voter was not enticed. Have we frittered away that wealth of civilised innocence of a nation for the mockery of hustings as they have come to pass now?

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Sometimes, a mother is so much more

Raj Kumari

Growing up, I never found my mother very motherly, and I mean not in a conventional cuddly way. She would never sit and listen to my grumbles. She would cut me short, saying she needed to get out, meet a friend for tea or buy something. When at the age of 18 I was diagnosed with clinical depression, she was not shaken, as I had imagined her to be, given her personal history with the disease. Instead of lamenting over my condition, she straightaway marched me to the psychiatrist.

Once due to an accident, I had to be hospitalised. It was my birthday month. Lying in the hospital bed I brooded over spending my birthday in that dull room. Mom didn’t even have a word with me, and surprisingly, went ahead with ordering a cake. She decorated the walls of the room, and in the evening a host of my friends reached with gifts, as if nothing had happened.

I deemed it the ‘single mother’ syndrome. All single mothers are warrior queens throughout their lives. That same evening of my birthday, she brought in the hospital room a little baby wrapped in a blush pink towel. I observed how she looked mellower all of a sudden. A vulnerability I had never noticed before. Our lives were fully and blissfully complete complementing each other. I felt a sudden tug at my heart due to the unwanted presence of this child. A rival in love, maybe!

The question began to bother me whether my mother was without company in the hard, cold city of Delhi, where she never really found her own circle, unlike our native town.

The little girl began to take baby steps. Mom filled up her life by educating my sister, taking a decision for us to foster this fatherless child of a poor woman abandoned by her cheat, philandering husband. My sister was no more a rival in love. She became the love of my life. It was tough for my mother to meet the mounting expenditure of her two growing up daughters with the paltry pension of my late father. She started giving home tuitions to make our lives better. With the intention of saving every penny, she stopped accompanying her friends to weekend parties. Her time would now fly, taking care of our homework, uniform, tiffin, doctor’s prescriptions for me, PTMs, wardrobe management, and so on.

How a tragedy had altered and shaped our lives! After my father’s untimely death, my mother was cast into the role of a survivor. She had no choice but to keep walking, which she did for over three decades without a grimace on her face.

Now, mom is resting permanently in peace after playing her part so successfully. But before her departure, she had made both her daughters bold enough to grapple with the toughest times of life. Four decades ago the beautiful gift my mother had brought for me is now a woman in whom I see the reflection of my mother.

Really, all of us owe a lot to our mothers. But single mothers deserve special respect and reverence.

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Marked for success? Maybe not

Aditya Mukherjee

Back in the eighties, when I was a student of humanities, anybody getting around 60-65% in aggregate in the boards was a big cause for celebration. I secured second division. In fact, the very mention of first division meant that the student was really diligent. Sweets would be distributed by exultant parents in the neighbourhood. Humanities was generally considered low scoring and many would quip that to score good marks in this discipline was akin to boiling the ocean! Even a second division was considered no mean feat. It was widely assumed that the student had put his nose to the grindstone to secure good marks.

But now we are living in the age of percentage. With each passing year, the 90% and above brigade is just going up, especially in — wonder of wonders — humanities. The amount of media limelight these toppers steal is mind-boggling. They become overnight celebrities on social media as well.

The flip side, however, is not difficult to fathom. The unimaginably liberal marking system, even in disciplines like humanities, which is mostly analytical in nature, defies explanation. Full marks in maths and science are par for the course. But now, we are inured to the spectacle of seeing students scoring full marks in subjects like political science, history, economics and even psychology. No wonder, these days, students from humanities mostly emerge toppers at the all-India level, pipping science students.

But in this lemming-like madness, students scoring less percentage are falling by the wayside. Is today’s education system encouraging a healthy competitive streak among students or making success the be all and end all of school life? The jury seems to be out on this.

If a student secures 60-65% in humanities in the boards, which is in the category of first division, it is not considered commendable by any means. He/she also cannot even dream of getting admission to a good college in a regular course. They are marked out as incompetent and mediocre. Many students even slip into depression. It has not been proved yet that students securing fewer marks than so-called toppers are not the sharpest knife in the drawer or devoid of grey cells. There are also numerous instances of late bloomers who were otherwise mediocre students in school.

Perhaps, this Darwinian battle for supremacy in percentage has been triggered by the urge to get into a good college. While there is no denying the amount of hard work and sincerity involved in scoring 90% and above in the final board examination, the question is, how many of these toppers are really that successful in the choppy waters of practical life, which is a different kettle of fish altogether?

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Sorry, can’t offer shelter from storm

Subir Roy

Sorry, can’t offer shelter from storm When the severe storm, Fani, hit Odisha and was set to blow its way through Kolkata the next day, we middle-class folks went through the drill we were familiar with — stay put at home, make sure all the out-facing doors and windows are properly latched, remember to switch off as many gadgets as possible.

As our matronly maid Mamani went about cleaning our flat, it struck me: what happens to her family? I knew people like them lived in jhuggis with a tin roof, which is easily blown away in 100-km-plus winds.

But Mamani’s lot in life was more daunting. She and her rickshaw-puller husband shared their one-room home with two disabled children. Her 30-year-old daughter could just about move around but not speak. Her son, in the mid-twenties, was worse off. He could barely get off the bed and also not speak at all.

I asked her how she was preparing for the storm. She simply smiled. You can perhaps park a boxful of valuables and clothes at someone’s place but what about the children? There was no response from her.

That set me thinking. We could create an emergency shelter in our housing complex for her children. I went down and started a conversation with the security guards. Was there a room somewhere on the ground floor near one of the toilets which the guards used where two disabled people could spend the stormy night? There wasn’t any. There was the well-stocked senior citizens’ club room with the cards table and carrom board and there were a couple of rooms filled with chairs which were taken out during events.

Then it struck me. There were two guard rooms next to the two gates which the guards used mostly to change and keep a few clothes. One of them was full but the other was almost empty. They all knew Mamani and when I told them the need to find a shelter for her unfortunate children, they readily agreed. I was certain they themselves lived in the sort of jhopri that Mamani called home.

I came back home and told her about my grand plan, which, of course, had to be approved by the society’s secretary who worked for a do-gooder multilateral agency. As soon as he heard me out, he told me he was all for it, but had to clear the idea with fellow committee members.

After half an hour came the bombshell. The secretary was on the phone listing the doubts that the others had raised. What if seeing what we had done for Mamani’s children, other jhopri people also wanted a shelter in our complex! Besides, the guards said they needed the room to change. Somewhat rudely I cut him short saying I had got the sense and ended the call.

Telling Mamani ‘Sorry, my plan didn’t work’ was the easy part. I just couldn’t get over the fact that we middle-class people could not find shelter for a single night for two disabled people. The gods must have seen it all from above. The severe storm largely passed the city by and Mamani and family were not harmed.

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Can we stop ordering her about?

Ritu Kamra Kumar

A baby girl is a bundle of joy. As a youngster, unrestricted and uninhibited she wants to fly. Yet, she is conditioned to limit herself — not to be expressive, not to be assertive, follow norms set by socially constructed myths. Why is a woman always seen as a victim or an object?

The recent video of an enraged middle-aged woman trying to shame younger women in short dresses and asking men to rape them reflects a regressive approach of society, dictating women what to wear, where to go. It is not about an individual’s objection to the choice of dress worn by some girls, but about the whole social edifice which represses them. Since childhood, women are raised with preconceived notions of their parents, family and society’s dos and don’ts.

We all are from diverse backgrounds, irrespective of our cultures and societies. The other day in the park, I overheard the conversation of some women criticising their daughters-in-law for not wearing dupatta. We all breathe in the air of androcentrism, the system that positions the male in the centre of the universe, sidelining the female counterpart. Our behaviour, thoughts and mindsets, all are patriarchal in every possible way. Be it our daughters or daughters-in-laws, restricting them in the name of protectiveness or circumscribing limits for the gender — expecting a particular behaviour that defines what’s acceptable and what’s not — our minds are confined in staunch walls of orthodoxy. We are centuries behind our times. That girls who wear short dresses and bare legs mean to send an invitation to sexual assault is the Victorian aunt’s distorted perspective, who herself is vulnerable as a woman because social media snubbed her outright, shaming her for her demeaning comment. Eventually she was forced to apologise. Her myopic behaviour is one of the ways patriarchy sustains itself by making women victimise other women. Women are often complicit, blindly following the dictates of men, who are sovereign beings.

Actually the problem is that we have stereotyped the image of woman in general in our subconscious. Stereotyping how a woman should look, act and express herself; what kind of jobs she can do; what her duties are, as a ‘good’ wife, mother and daughter. Furthermore, her basic role is to procreate. On that basis she is judged by the populace.

We have created a box and then want a woman to be put into that box. If she doesn’t fit into the box, we label her as shameless and imperfect. We talk about progressive thinking; beti bachao, beti padhao; selfie with daughter, Samridhi bank account, etc., but still we don’t accept her wearing a dress of her choice. This is the sad reality of a woman’s life. Aren’t we repressive in our approach? What about the often-talked vision of an equal society?

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The many vegetarians in Pakistan!

Sumit Paul

Stereotyping countries and their people is common and when it comes to Pakistan, fixed opinions are all the more difficult to be dislodged. That Pakistan has a large number of vegetarians (Khushwant Singh, 2012) is a statement that doesn’t find many takers in India, until you visit the country and see it for yourself. Even I doubted the veracity of this claim. But I saw this on my innumerable visits to Pakistan as an advanced research scholar of Islamic theology, Hadith and Persian mysticism. Non-vegetarian and vegetarian restaurants are almost in equal numbers. Visit Karachi’s posh Clifton Road or Airport Road, Islamabad, pure vegetarian eateries are juxtaposed with non-vegetarian restaurants. Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari has always been a strict vegetarian. So was Benazir Bhutto’s dad Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Despite being born into a Sindhi-Muslim household and having been educated at Oxford and Berkeley, ZA Bhutto turned a complete vegetarian at the age of 16. He surprised Indira Gandhi during his visit to India in 1972 for the Simla Agreement. Imran Khan’s cousin and stylish batsman Majid Khan was a vegetarian and had not even tried eggs in his entire life.

I remember interviewing legendary ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan for a British Urdu daily in 2009. I knew that he was a vegetarian. I asked him, ‘Janaab ke gosht na khaane ka koi khaas sabab?’ (Is there any specific reason for not eating non-veg)? His calm reply has stayed with me: ‘Mausiqi ibadat-e-Parvardigaar se kam nahin aur bandagi-e-sadiq mein khoon-kharaba humein gavara nahin’ (Music is no less than worshipping the Almighty and true worship doesn’t allow any sort of bloodshed).

Many male vocalists of India and Pakistan have been vegetarians and that should be a matter of serious research. Ustad Amir Khan, composer-vocalist Firoz Nizami, Ustad Rahmatullah Khan, Talat Mahmood, Mohammed Rafi and many more didn’t eat non-veg food, though Rafi relished it till the age of 25. Meat supposedly roughens vocal chords. Even Frank Sinatra turned a vegetarian when spiritual guru Jiddu Krishnamurti hinted that non-veg food might interfere with the realisation of his full potential. He stopped and after a month, recorded the great hit, ‘My Way’.

Coming back to Pakistan, popular Urdu poet Parvin Shakir was an avowed vegetarian. So were Pakistani Air Chief Marshal Noor Khan and Air Marshal Asghar Khan.

A vegetarian myself, I relished the best fare at the eateries there. I can never forget the mouth-watering dishes at Sargodha in Pakistan’s Punjab. My teacher and mentor, Dr Zaifa Ashraf, who hailed originally from Karachi, never had non-veg food in her entire life, for it would make her nauseous!

It’s time to get our ingrained perceptions right in this age of increasing hatred and bad blood.

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Another eco-friendly house goes down

Rajiv Sharma

The owner had named it ‘Aalhana’ (the nest). An ochre house at the beginning of our street was an enchanting landmark. The single-storeyed house boasted of a beautiful lawn in the front and at the back. Two tall and sturdy bottle-palms stood guard at the entrance. A row of ashoka trees at the front guarded the privacy of the family with their thick foliage. A couple of mulberry trees, laden with crimson berries, alongside the boundary wall, invited children to perfect their tree-climbing skills.

Though side walls had a wire fencing, the dense grapevines hid the thorny wires in its embrace and dangling bunches of sweet and sour grapes completed the picture of the poetic beauty of Aalhana.

The house was an important identification mark of our street for more than four decades until the owner passed away. Because of its proximity to the main road, land sharks started hovering around the nest. They smelled a soft target. Sons and the wife of the deceased were lured into the trap of striking it rich overnight. The vulnerable family eventually fell prey to the lucrative offers and the nest was sold, much to the dismay of the residents of our street.

Once the deal was struck, ditch machines lost no time in descending on the scene. The house showcasing the architecture of the early seventies was brought down within hours, without much resistance from the forlorn walls and distraught pillars.

Palms, ashoka and mulberry trees were uprooted, severed and sold off in a haste. The grapevines were mauled and mangled along with the shrubbery and set afire. It took only a few days to raze it to the ground and a barren and mutilated piece of land lay ready to become a commercially viable venture.

Excavators dug up at a frantic pace and a basement was ready in a few week, to be followed by incessant construction activities lasting over a year. A multi-storeyed airproof structure was ready to kneel to the demands of the market. The tranquil nest metamorphosed into a commercial giant in no time.

A swanky gym boasting of the latest exercising equipment, minus oxygen, opened in the basement while the ground floor was rented to a private bank with elaborated lighting and an ATM. A coaching academy and a visa consultation centre have sprung up on the second floor to assist in brain drain, while the third floor awaits a prospective tenant to add to the conundrum.

The serenity of Aalhana has been swapped with the non-stop humming of heavy-duty air-conditioning units and smoke-spewing generators.

Aroma of the cool breeze that delighted our senses has given way to hot gusts of air emitted by the air-conditioners. Car-owners and bikers have invaded our little street in large numbers to park their vehicles, much to the chagrin of the street-dwellers. Another eco-friendly house has been sacrificed to satisfy the ever-growing needs of the urbanites. The vulture of commerce has gobbled up another thriving nest to raise a skyscraper without any eulogy.

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