too much

too much of everything
too little of nothing
too much to say, too many saying
too little heard, too little listening
too much sound, too much cacophony
too much noise, too many words
too many stories, too many people
too many pictures, too many tears
desensitized with just too much…

how am i to tell my story?
so i can be heard
so something is addressed
so something is redressed
feeble voices drowning
faces lost, lives fade away
in too much of much
and too little of the little.

thaamb tai, kunkoo laavte…

thaamb tai, kunkoo laavte“, she said. And as we went through that simple ritual, and she took that pinch of vermillion to put on my forehead, our eyes met. In that one moment, all acknowledged. Our stories exchanged. Our histories interwove. The vermillion mark on our foreheads the testimony of millenia of standing together, shoulder to shoulder, leading the same lives, no matter where. In that one moment, I heard her… or was it me?

i am the mother
i nurture, i care
i am the crone
wisdom deep in my eyes
i am the daughter
i serve and cajole
the tired, hardened heart
i am the warrior
i fight to protect
the destiny of my children
i am the wife
who toils through the day
ensuring food
for everyone
i am the mate
in me rests the tranquility
of the home
i am the Earth
i bear the burden
i tolerate, i accept
all needless violence
unleashed upon me
i am the whore
i tease, please and satisfy
i am the goddess
all encompassing, forgiving
sita, laxmi, durga
all rolled in one
i am that kunkoo
that vermillion mark
with which all my identities
have been defined.

where am i then?
that frail human being?
not mother, not wife,
not daughter, not whore,
not warrior, not goddess…
but that just that frail being
who cries, who fears
who rages, who resents
who lusts, who yearns,
dreams, and desires…?
all of these
subjugated
submerged
sublimated
in that one pinch of destiny
burned and branded
on my forehead.

Kosi Embankments – an elephant in the room

It is impossible to talk about floods in Bihar without talking about the embankments being built around its rivers. The embankments are “an elephant in room” which everybody knows about, understands and can see, but refuses to acknowledge – either its presence or its impact.

When we went to Bihar, and we talked to people about the August 2008 floods, it became more and more clear that this particular floods, which were highlighted so much in the press, is the least of their problems. We found out, by talking to the people, that the Kosi has breached its embankments several times, eight times to be exact, earlier, and the people living along this river have repeatedly been subjected to the impacts of river in spate rushing out. It became clear that life in Bihar could very clearly be demarcated – life before the embankments and life after the embankments.

The rivers in Bihar come rushing down the Himalayas, bringing with them silt laden waters that flood and spread during summer and monsoon. The floods would spread over a large area, leaving behind filled up tanks and ponds and a layer of live-giving silt that rejuvenated the agricultural lands. The people would have to “manage” living during the flood-season which was about 2-3 weeks in a year which they had learnt, understanding the rhythm of the rivers.

However, during the “modern development” and growth period, the government decided to “fix” this problem by building embankments on both sides of the Kosi, thus forcing her to flow inside it. The solution worked – but only for a little while. Before long, the embankments became one of the biggest problems of the people living along the river. The silt brought down by the river, kept filling the channel up and thus raising the height of river. Today we can see the river flowing 8-10 ft above the ground-level – a sure recipe for disaster.

Every engineer, scientist, technologist knows one fact about embankments – that they will breach. It is a given fact, corroborated with experiences from all over the world. The problem then is what happens when the embankments breach? In people’s language “Kosi used to come like a cat before, now she comes like a tigress”. The river’s force has become destructive and damages thousands of houses and structures, fills the lands with sand and silt and costs the government and the people millions of rupees.

The problem does not end there. The biggest problem is that there is nothing that can done now, except live with the embankments. For the 300 and odd villages within the embankments, life is uncertain at the best and death and loss of livelihood certain at the worst. For the other many villages along the embankments, people live in constant threat and fear of an embankment breach.

The embankments have brought with them long-term problems. The whole drainage in the region has been upset and the monsoon waters have nowhere to go. This has meant water-logging of thousands of hectares of land. Where earlier these regions were agricultural lands, they have, over the decades, become “wetlands”. There is a change in the whole eco-system. Habitats have changed.

Reconstruction under such circumstances has become a way of life. Discussions on Habitat planning, development and design rendered useless when faced with the issue of the River embankments.

Scientists have argued that a Technological solution is not the problem. That it is imperative and goes without saying that embankments have to be maintained and a lack of maintenance is bound to create breaches and the resulting impacts.

What line does a discussion on Sustainability have to take, under such circumstances, where a Technological solution has created a perpetual disaster for the people – and especially those who are the most vulnerable, poor and the marginalized. A ‘man-made’ solution that has been violent, unjust, unsustainable and that has totally eliminated a peoples’ way of life.

All discussions on Disaster Reconstruction, Recovery and Rehabilitation skirt around the issue. The guidelines and the policies do not acknowledge the root cause of an unsolvable problem, but continue to posit further, similar ‘technological’ solutions.

How does one reconcile the contradiction in the situation where a solution by the “government + expert” combine have imposed a perpetual disaster on the people on one hand and on the other, as they now come with ‘support’ and ‘assistance’ and talk about people’s participation, ‘earthquake safety norms’, disaster-proofing and sustainability?

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Hyderabad was sizzling. The temparatures so high that one could make tea with the hot water in the taps. As we moved around the city, the heat was being soaked in and absorbed by the building upon buildings of concrete, glass and chrome … and as evening fell all the absorbed heat began to be radiated out. We were definitely inside a Tandoor of sorts.

All these concrete houses, built cheek to jowl to one another, did not sport any trees. No shade anywhere to protect from the blazing sun. Not a bit of green to cool the eyes or the soul. Open spaces left barren to bake in the heat. Buildings left naked to burn under an angry Sun.

Why do cut off trees even when we don’t need to? Why this preoccupation of ‘clearing up’ everything around? Security? The fear that the tree provides means for people to climb into our defences? Or that the branches will play with our wires and the wires would start misbehaving then?

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I give up.

Just felt like giving up everything and going and growing vegetables in some remote village or something.

Normally I don’t feel so distressed when I am confronted with the impossibility of a Bombay… but this time I felt the futility of doing anything so strongly. There really seems no way out any more. We, as a humanity, have gone far beyond the point of no return. Nothing to be done, no change can happen with the tools and mindset we use. Something radically different has to happen. We are all in the box.

I seriously wish I didn’t care. But I do. So much that it almost tastes bitter in my mouth sometimes. And this sense of hopelessness. Maybe Samuel was right. Until we totally understand and experience the hopelessness, we won’t feel the need to break out.

The near future looks like it can rapidly degenerate into Mad Max kind of scenarios … a whole population that will live underground (of human psyche), coming up once in a way to fight and grapple and loot for itself some sustenance, while the groups above only make things more and more ‘secure’, becoming more and more violent and insular.

There will no more superheroes.

The future seems laid out … the ‘good life’ and the way it is sold – through fear and greed, will never be available, really not even to those who have, because they too will be only spending their life balancing on an unstable system.

Of course one sees pockets of brilliance. Pockets of compassion. Pockets of hope. But they don’t seem enough to mop up or absorb that which is being churned out.

We truly are living in a world gone mad. Profit, science, technology, power gone mad, gone out of control.

And when all the trees are gone, and all the oceans are dead, and all birds have flown away … when all the songs are silent … we shall adapt… to that too.

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