Monthly Archives: July 2010

Caste as an Identity: Dalits Exist on the Edge of Humanity

“Why is my caste my only identity?” – Omprakash Valmiki, Joothan.

‘Dalit’ was not a word that belonged to my vocabulary. The word ‘untouchable’ hovered as a vague ghostly embodiment on the edges of my consciousness, but Dalit was an unknown foreign object that waited just out of reach. I had to only reach out and pluck it. Luckily, in the fall of 2005, Dr. Arun Mukherjee introduced me to Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan in her second year “Post Colonial South Asian Literature” class.

Dalit is a term that was readily adopted by the untouchable communities all over India. As a translator of Joothan from its original Hindi to its English form, Mukherjee writes in the introduction that “this was the first time that [the untouchables] had been able to name themselves, as a collectivity, rather than be named by others”.

Among these “other” names, one that most springs to mind is Gandhi’s ‘Harijan’. A loose term for ‘Children of God’, Gandhi allowed for further segregation of the Dalit community rather than an integration into the mainstream. Kind of ironic, if you think about it.  I wonder if he stopped to think of his foolish mistake. Even today, people from the higher castes (or, anti-Dalits, as Mukherjee puts it) use the term ‘Harijan’ to insult and taunt.

I remember Ma telling me about Gopal. When she was a little girl living in the city of Calcutta, almost half a century ago when proper disposal of excreta had not even come into existence. When you apparently shat into a huge earthen pot that was later emptied out by the sweeper, a designated untouchable. In my mother’s childhood days, Gopal was this sweeper.

The boy cleaning his basket and vessels, after he finished his work. India, 2007. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos.

The boy cleaning his basket and vessels, after he finished his work. India, 2007. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos.

He was known as a mathor, meaning a  guy who was responsible for cleaning people’s excreta (and who cleaned his?). He was literally an untouchable as everyone gave him a wide berth. Sure, he was invited to weddings, but he always had to sit far apart from the other wedding guests.

A recent article in Deccan Herald that sparked me to write this blog post pointed at a demeaning incident where as a way to protest injustice and to get their voices heard, members of the Dalit community were forced to smear human excreta on themselves. In the town of Savanur (in the Haveri distict of the Karnataka state in India), the Dalit community were evicted from their homes by Savanur Town Municipal Council (TMC). In a world where greed wins over humanity and commercialism rules in the face of poverty, the TMC decided that their land would be better off if used for a commercial complex rather than as the homes of the many poor Dalit workers who have been residing there for the past seventy years.

Dalits covered in human excreta at Savanur

These Dalit workers and their families belonging to the Bhangi community (which is also treated as the lowest among the Dalit community) were first given verbal directives by the TMC, which later accelerated to cutting off of water supply, dumping garbage in front of their houses, and insulting and threatening their women. Frustrated, these workers were forced to extreme measures that included a march to the TMC office on Tuesday July 20th, and pouring human excreta over themselves as a way to protest their continued humiliation.

Result? The TMC Executive Officer H.N. Bajakkanavar defended TMC and said that they had assured to provide houses under various housing schemes.  He also explained that the water supply was cut off because it was illegal. Irony again, as Dalit Sangharsha Samiti activists testify that there are other illegal water supplies in town that are still in existence.

As Valmiki writes in his book Joothan, “Because in their eyes, I am only an SC (schedule caste), the one who stands outside the door”. Thus, even though the Dalit community constitutes 16% of the Indian population, they are still left standing outside the door of humanity.

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Falling Star with an Attitude: A Minute with Raghav Mathur

I interviewed Raghav on 27th June 2010 after the Boogie Woogie Canada Finals. It was an unscheduled, impromptu interview. An edited version was published in The Weekender on 16th July.

When Raghav crooned “Can’t Get Enough” on my television screen back in 2004, I got little goosebumps. At 18, I was infatuated with this handsome, sexy newcomer whose tiny smirk and lilting voice jolted my heartbeat every time I watched him on MTV. The world became smaller, and only he and I existed in my tiny living room.

 Back in 2004.

Then he pretty much disappeared from my life. I moved on while he vanished into the melee of the many pop star faces of my teenage years.

Until the evening of 27th June 2010, when fate brought us together at the Boogie Woogie Canada Finals. While he assumed the role of one of the judges, I was a reporter covering the event (with a secret hope raging in my heart to sneak backstage later for an unscheduled interview). With mild anticipation tinting my adult eyes, I looked forward to the evening.

Not for long.

The rude awakening came when Raghav took to the mike and started to compliment the participants. His constant habit of falling back upon generic stock adjectives crushed my teenage image of this youth icon of yesteryear. This dream guy from my puppy love days emerged as a cocky full-of-himself wannabe with a limited vocabulary. Could it be true? Had he actually fallen from grace?

Not wanting to admit it to myself, I decided to head backstage after the show, just to watch him up-close and personal. With renewed hope in my heart, I chose to pursue my desire to grab an interview.

At first, it is difficult to get his attention, as the participants and their parents mob him. The many excited attendees who were eager to grab a pose with Raghav for their Facebook profiles and family albums obscure my tiny frame. I have to wait patiently for my turn. At one point, I yell out: “Raghav, I am from the media. Can I have an interview?” He glances at me, and imperiously replies, “Just a minute” and continues to ignore my presence for the attention of his many admirers, all the while reminding me of my inconsequential existence.

Finally, feeling slightly miffed, I walk up to him, hold out my recorder close to his face, and repeat my request. His eyes unreadable behind his dark sunglasses, he answers carelessly, “You have one minute.”

What follows next is a rapid fire round of a quiz show.

A household name in 2004, alongside Rishi Rich Project (made up of Rishi Rich, Juggy D and Jay Sean), Raghav maintains that Jay Sean is a household name now because he chose to do mainstream music unlike Raghav: “I make music in both Hindi and English so for me to chase is not to have a big record in any one territory. I wanna make music that I wanna make. And, Jay [Sean]’s done very well and he should be very proud of his success, and I am very proud of him as well, as that’s the kind of music I have always wanted to make. But I am always gonna go on making more obscure Hindi records because I am a different kinda artist”. Funny this coming from the guy whose newest single “So Much” (in collaboration with Kardinal Offishall) reeks enormously of mainstream music.

When asked about his plans of expansion as a comeback artist, he responds, “I would love to do a tour, but maybe in a couple of months. I think we still got to do some more tracks.” You mean some more mainstream tracks, as opposed to “obscure Hindi records”.

Giving his two cents of advice to new artists venturing into the big bad music industry world, Raghav says, “Make sure you do it because of the arts of the heart. Do it for the right reasons. If you are chasing fame and fortune, you will be very sadly disappointed. But if you love making music, then just follow it”. Sounds like Raghav is still following his dream of walking into the footsteps of Jay Sean, as I notice a tinge of regret when he answers that in 10 years, he sees himself as “Hopefully just happy”.

He ends with a brief “Thank you”, before heading off into the crowd of parents and children whose steady refrain of “Raghav, one photograph!” sounds hollowly all around me.

As I make my way to the exit, with my heart crushed with this newfound encounter with my past love affair, I find cold comfort in the knowledge that if I were to challenge him to a game of Scrabble, he would probably end up losing.

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Pride Parade 2010 (part 2 of 2): South Asians Are NOT Gay

An edited version was published on 9th July on the SouthAsianParent.Com website.

This year’s attendance on my part at the Pride Parade was a revelation in more ways than one. Don’t get me wrong. I have many friends who are allies and whom I support wholeheartedly. But despite being in Canada for six years, somehow, I always ended up being out of town during the Pride Week. This year, though, I made it a point to keep this particular weekend free specifically for the parade.

The parade itself had few South Asians marching with different organizations. For example, there was a South Asian female cop marching with other cops, and a South Asian volunteer from Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention (ASAAP) who was marching on behalf of the “Free Speech” group. And, even though there were groups representing different ethnic communities, I failed to see even one group marching on behalf of South Asians. This was something I had noticed at the Dyke march a day ago as well, where women from different ethnicities were marching proudly on the behalf of the queer women of their communities, be it Hispanic or Asian, among others. Except South Asians. I wonder whether this exclusion of South Asians of themselves from their community is deliberate or accidental, and whether it is exclusive to Toronto.

This evening I had a conversation with my dad. He stands by his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He knows what I do. Who I hang out with. And, what I believe in. Occasionally I try to make him see that being queer is ok. It’s NOT a deviation of the mind, or non-existent, as many South Asians would like to believe. In fact, wasn’t homosexuality an accepted practice in ancient India, before the British took over and slammed the Sodomy law onto us? If we didn’t make homosexuality abnormal, it would not be such a taboo. Can we atleast promise to learn and educate ourselves?

These are arguments I use. Sometimes, I win. But I think till we change our attitudes, the South Asian representation will always be little to non-existent, as those who need the courage the most, will keep away in fear of being kept out.

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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Pride Parade 2010 (part 1 of 2): When Over Enthusiasm Turns Sour

I was a Pride Week virgin. Until last Sunday when I attended the Pride Parade held in downtown Toronto. The parade was over-the-top, guileless, harmless, unadulterated, pure fun! But what happens when we get an over enthusiastic crowd who fail to draw the line at their exuberance?

 

 

Yes, we get a car with broken glass

The Culprits

The Culprits

See those happy attendees on the top of the building with water guns

A closer look

A closer look

In their enthusiasm to throw water on the parade (which was a welcome relief for many who were sweating in the sweltering heat), they turned from using buckets of water and waterguns to water balloons. 

Now imagine a water balloon being thrown from a building of that height. Make a rough estimate of the velocity of the moving water balloon and the impact it would make on its contact with the glass of the car. Now, I am not very good at physics, but evidently it is bound to do some damage. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to click the driver whose face turned ten shades of red in the span of a few seconds. I am sure the heat was not solely responsible for it.

Another over enthusiastic attendee held up the Pride Parade by a few minutes by his antics. Hiding his face behind a one way visor and brandishing a huge “polite” sign, he got within the barricades and hopped his way around in a bid to attract attention of the crowd and media alike.

Impolite Intruder

Impolite Intruder

Many, like me, believed he was a part of the parade till the security got a hold of him. 

Where will you go now?

Where will you go now?

Blocked Exits

Blocked Exits

Caught!

Caught!

Being close to the action, I managed to capture these highly exciting moments before he was ushered out into the crowd. 

After having his face revealed for all to see and curse.

Revealed!

Revealed!

Being yelled at: Feels good, doesn't it?

Being yelled at: Feels good, doesn't it?

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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Intent and Inspiration: Mallika Chopra’s Mantra to Life

I conducted this interview on June 18th at the ideaCity conference in Toronto. An edited version was published in The Weekender on July 2nd.

Mallika Chopra. Deepak Chopra’s daughter. Their names are almost synonymous. Almost.  But there is more to her than her father’s name.

Mallika Chopra and her daughters, Tara (left) and Leela, 2002

Mallika Chopra and her daughters, Tara (left) and Leela, 2002

Recently at the ideaCity conference held in Toronto (June 16th – June 18th), Mallika Chopra’s presentation talked about her inspiration from her family, her ‘intent’ blog (now, www.intent.com) and her journey from a girl in her twenties to a woman who quit her glamorous job at MTV Asia to find her true intent in life, as well as, the constant inspiration that she draws from her two daughters.

As Deepak Chopra’s daughter, she reminisces on stage about how Dr. Chopra taught her and her brother, Gotham, to set intentions for their lives on a daily basis. He urged them to say, “I am responsible for what I see, I choose the feelings I experience and set the goals I want to achieve. And everything that happens to me, I asked for, and receive as I have asked.”

She further divulges that it was her job at MTV Asia at the age of twenty-three that opened up her vision to the realization that the power of media can change the world. And voila, the germ for the idea of her intent blog was born. Co-founded with Gotham Chopra, Deepak Chopra and Shekhar Kapur, the blog asks people to post their intent for the day, an idea very similar to what her father cultivated in her and her brother at a very young age. When asked about the idea behind the blog, Chopra answers, “Basically we started writing. My whole family [is made up of] writers. We started blogging. It was really a hobby that took off and became something… The power of intention has been such a foundation in my life. It was actually a very slow process. I am a mother with two kids. I stayed at home with my kids. It kind of evolved over time. Overseeing is the power of social media to manifest change and it’s been more inspiring to see other people who have taken it on”. 

Despite being a successful spiritual guru in her own right (as many would agree), she is proud of being her father’s daughter, “I don’t mind being labeled as my father’s daughter. I am proud to be [Deepak Chopra’s daughter]. My brother and I have been blessed to be brought up in an environment that was surrounded by love and compassion versus an environment of hatred. I think we were very lucky. I think my father does great work. And he’s touched so many people which to me is an inspiration. Absolutely; we embrace it completely”. And, do you think your father’s fame has been key in your own fame? She laughs and answers, “Definitely, there’s no question about it”.

Mallika Chopra at ideaCity 2010

Mallika Chopra at ideaCity 2010

When asked about her mother’s almost non-existent mention, she clarifies that her mother has been (and is) “the complete rock and foundation for our family and our extended family”. Her absence from the media is a deliberate move on her part, as she “hates to be in the press and she… shuns it”. Chopra feels that this is “wonderful” as according to her, her “mother is the person in [her] family who has kept [them] all grounded”. Chopra adds that her mother “keeps us down to earth and not to take ourselves too seriously. She is the reason my dad is so successful because she made a lot of sacrifices”. The pride in her voice is perhaps a little more than when she talked about her father. In fact, being a mother herself has further changed Chopra’s life “on every aspect”. Not only did maternal joy make her a writer, but she believes that her “whole life is based on [her] children”.

And ten years down the line? She bursts out laughing and answers, “People keep asking me that question! I have to be honest… I talked a little bit [at my presentation] about how I found my voice when I became a mother. And, that’s been so transformative for me. I have always been interested in children and  children’s issues. So, I hope that in time I can become more of an advocate for children’s issues, because I see it through the lens of being a mother myself”. 

As a youth icon for today’s generation, Chopra has some sound advice for newbies aspiring to find their voice, “Frankly, I meandered and have done so many random and different things. There is a kind of fear of being on a path… It’s ok to take time and figure out who you are [and] what you want… Find something that you truly love to do and with that, you will find success.”

Photograph of Mallika Chopra at ideaCity 2010: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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