Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wisdom beyond schooling

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Jan 18, 2015

Veena Devi

Veena Devi is unlettered. I use that word rather than ‘uneducated’. When I met her more than five years ago, she was the mukhiya, or sarpanch, of Loharpura panchayat in Nawada district in south Bihar. She is now in her early forties. At a time when the government had reserved half the seats in panchayats for women, Veena Devi had been elected twice from general seats.

In her first term in the panchayat, she admitted that she felt lost. She did not understand fully what was going on. One could hardly blame her for this. Married at 13 to a man much older than herself, a widower with two children, she became a mother at 15 and a widow at 17. Veena had seen more than her share of life and its sorrows even before she became a major. Going to school was nowhere on the horizon.

Yet, perhaps because she was compelled to learn in the ‘school of life’, she had a wisdom beyond her years and certainly more profound than anything taught in our schools. Without being tutored, she had a sense of what people needed, how to order priorities in terms of the use of developmental funds, and how to listen to the people who came to her with problems.

I thought of Veena Devi when I learned that the Rajasthan Government had passed an ordinance stipulating that only those who have cleared Std. VIII or X can contest panchayat or zilla parishad elections in that state. If such a law had existed in Bihar, a woman like Veena Devi would never have had a chance to contest.

The assumption behind this ordinance, promulgated without any justification of its urgency, is that because panchayats have to handle considerable developmental funds, ‘educated’ people will be more efficient and less corrupt. The assumption defies not just logic but evidence that shows that corruption certainly has no connection with levels of education. Make a list of the most corrupt people in India and the majority would be so-called ‘literate’.

My own experience of meeting women like Veena Devi has been humbling. How easily those of us with privilege and access to education think we are wiser. And yet the clarity of these women shouldering the responsibility of managing developmental funds for a panchayat remind us that reading numbers and letters, going to school or college in itself does not make you a wiser person or a better administrator. It does not automatically imbue you with a concern for other people. It does not necessarily teach you how to listen to people, how to empathise, how to understand what people are trying to tell you.

None of this means that we must not ensure that every child does go to school; that by the time she is ready to contest an election she does possess basic literacy skills. But let us not, while we wait for that to happen, cut off from our systems of governance women like Veena Devi.

The best part of the 73rd amendment that laid the grounds for elections to panchayats and reservation for women is that it has brought into governance systems over 1.5 million women, many of them poor, from the lower castes, and also often with very little schooling. And although one should not generalise, and there are many instances of such women being used by men as proxies, there are an increasing number now who understand the system and who are able to work it so that it serves the interests of the largest number of people.

Let me return to Veena Devi to illustrate what I mean. Despite the handicap of minimal education, she quickly worked out how to overcome it. For instance, when she was handed petitions, she would ask people to give her some time to get back to them. She would then get a trusted person to read and tell her the content of the petition and come to a decision.

She also had the benefit of some sympathetic higher officials, including a woman bureaucrat, and a non-governmental organisation that invested in training her and giving her sound advice. As a result, when she had to decide about the use of funds for one of the villages, she chose a scheme of installing solar lights in the public areas of the village, knowing that this would benefit women in particular. In return, people of that village expressed satisfaction with her leadership.

For every Veena Devi, there are literally thousands of other women who are providing decent governance inputs at the panchayat level. They are largely unseen; they do face problems; they could benefit from more training and from getting literacy skills. But their main qualification is their commitment and their desire to serve their community. These women do not deserve to be left out of the picture because some misguided people in Rajasthan have decided that schooling equals wisdom and honesty.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

I’ve written no fiction since my first visit to Palestine in 2000: Ahdaf Soueif

My interview with Ahdaf Soueif in The Hindu, Literary Review, January 3, 2015

Lit for Life 2015
Ahdaf Souief: novelist and political and social commentator. Photo: R. Ravindran
The Hindu
Ahdaf Souief: novelist and political and social commentator. Photo: R. Ravindran

The events following the “Arab Spring” in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have not unfolded quite the way protestors had imagined. In 2011, Egyptians looked forward to a change. Today, three years later, the object of their protests, former President Hosni Mubarak, has been exonerated by Egyptian courts, the experiment with a non-military democratically government has failed and instead today, another military man, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is at the helm.

One of the strongest voices during the protests in Egypt and since then has been the remarkable writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif. Born in Cairo and a PhD in linguistics, Soueif caught the world’s attention when her book, The Map of Love, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1999. Of late, however, she is known for her documentation of the Egyptian struggle for democracy, evocatively captured in her book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and her columns in The Guardian. Despite the turn events have taken in Egypt since the heady days of 2011, Soueif continues to write and protest and believes that is what writers like her must do.
Would you say that your involvement in the “Arab Spring” and the events in Tahrir Square in 2011 marked a transition in your writing from fiction to non-fiction?

Well, actually, I’ve written no fiction since my first visit to Palestine in 2000. I got caught up in a kind of cultural activism where it always seemed that the next article, the next event had to have priority over any longer project. So the longer projects never got done. This became even more acute with the Egyptian revolution (and, yes, we still call it a “revolution”) and even got formalised in a weekly column for the Egyptian national daily, Shorouk. So Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (second edition: Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed) is the only sustained text of length that I have managed to write in 15 years.
Since 2011, Egypt has gone through tremendous change and turbulence. How do you see the situation now, particularly against the background of Hosni Mubarak’s exoneration by the court?

The revolution forced the regime (or maybe gave the regime the opportunity?) to dislodge the Mubarak family. But the revolution never took power. What we’re now seeing is Regime Version 4. Version 1 being Mubarak; 2, the year of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to whom Mubarak delegated power; 3, the year of Dr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood; and 4 the period of Judge Mansour and General Sisi — post-July 2013. Every group that has taken power since Mubarak fell has tried to continue in his same mode of government but with its own players, and every one of them has sought accommodations with the establishment to do so. We now have a situation where army, police, judiciary, media, bureaucracy, big business have all identified their interests as anti-revolutionary and are working — lying and perjuring and killing — to protect and enhance them.
Many of the activists involved in the Tahrir square uprising are still in jail. What about the others who escaped arrest? Have they managed to continue organising, albeit in a clandestine manner?

People are still active, but also a lot are downhearted and divided.
In an article in The Guardian on June 29, 2014, you accused the present government lead by President Sisi of “waging a war on the young”. You saw the expedited trial of 24 human rights activists, including your niece, as a sign of this. Do you see any prospect of this changing? Will international pressure make any difference?

At the moment there is no international pressure on Egypt to respect human rights. In fact, the regime is being courted by the West as an ally in the ‘War on Terror’ and rewarded for its rhetoric and its activities in Sinai and who knows where else. Money and promises of money are pouring in from the Gulf countries, loans from the international financial institutions, and contracts, aid packages and arms from Western governments. Having said this, it’s really important to note that there is great concern and solidarity from civil society across the world. The pressure that is coming is coming from citizen groups, human rights groups and professional bodies: Universities, Bar Associations, medical associations and so on. This is the solidarity and the co-operation that we’re seeking now.
In another article in The Guardian you wrote, “The great slogan of the revolution — Bread, Freedom, Social Justice — has been whittled down to grateful for a crumb and a quiet corner.” Is this an expression of despair for the future or do you still believe that once people have been awakened to demand their rights, you cannot push them back?

I don’t feel despair. I just feel very sad at all the lives lost and the lives ruined. And that we will have to go through more sorrow and violence before we can start working to create a better society. There were reasons for the revolution, objective reasons: the difficulty of making a living, of providing a decent life for your children, the obscenely widening gap between rich and poor, the breakdown of education and healthcare plus, of course, the ever-worsening police brutality. All these conditions still exist. They’re getting more acute as the state insists on its economic path and tightens its grip on spaces of opposition, and they will lead to the new uprising. The difference next time will be that each faction has learned a different lesson from the events of the last four years, and that the country is awash with arms.
One of your remarkable initiatives has been the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) where you believe in ‘the power of culture over the culture of power’, quoting Edward Said. What role do you think interventions of this kind make in informing the world about the realities in Palestine? The media only covers this region when there is conflict. Why do you think arts, literature, cinema coming out of that region needs exposure and recognition?

PalFest ( is really a unique literary festival. It travels through the Israeli checkpoints between Palestinian cities, so every day it is with its audience in a different place. The writers do workshops and seminars in universities and literary and cultural events in the evenings. They really get to know the Palestinians as people — not just as a “cause” or a “conflict” or a “problem”. It’s really important that the world understands that in Palestine there is a people who are trying to live, work, write, bank, dance, marry, learn — in other words to live a normal life on what’s left of their land, in the face of tremendous aggression and constant incursions and attempts at take-over by Israel. One of the most immediate ways of conveying the “realness” and the normal humanity of the Palestinians is through their own cultural production and that of their friends and allies.
About Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif is a political and cultural commentator and novelist. Her account of recent Egyptian events, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, was published in 2012, and an updated edition, Cairo: A City Transformed, was published in January 2014. She is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999), as well as the well-loved In the Eye of the Sun and the collection of short stories, I Think of You. A collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. She has translated Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah from Arabic into English and commissioned and edited Reflections on Islamic Art. In 2007, Soueif founded Engaged Events, a U.K.-based charity. Its first project is the Palestine Festival of Literature, which takes place annually in the cities of occupied Palestine and Gaza. She has received the Metropolis Bleu and the Constantin Cavafy Awards (2012). She was the first recipient of the Mahmoud Darwish Award (2010) and was shortlisted for the Liberty Human Rights Award (2013).

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Wealth issues

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 4, 2015

Unbreakable spirit: Parveen. Photo: Kalpana Sharma
Unbreakable spirit: Parveen. Photo: Kalpana Sharma

2014 ended on a grim note. The horror in Peshawar with the gunning down of 132 children by the Taliban left everyone, not just Pakistanis, shaken. So as 2015 dawns, will things change, get better, more peaceful?

On current calculations, there is little to indicate that the trend of violence, seen not just in this subcontinent, or in West Asia but around the world, is anywhere near peaking.

At times such as these, when we are filled with despair at the state of the world, and indeed even our own country, where hate-filled talk against people of other faiths and persuasions is now out in the open, I turn to individuals who face life with a courage.

So let me begin this year with the story of a woman in Mumbai. Parveen Sheikh is in her early forties. She is a member of Mahila Milan and organises women in Mumbai’s slums so that they can tackle together some of the myriad problems all of them face.

Parveen was one of eight women I met recently in an office in Dharavi. We discussed politics, problems and possibilities. Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, Devendra Phadnis, is considering setting up a special committee to deal with Mumbai’s problems to be headed by the Prime Minister. What should be the priority for a city like Mumbai, I asked.

Housing was the consensus. Affordable housing for the poor should be top priority.

Parveen’s personal experience illustrates how politics and policies deal with the daunting problem of the homeless in one of India’s wealthiest cities. While the government introduces schemes to deal with the ‘slum problem’ (as if it involved buildings, not people); for people like Parveen, the solution is often worse than the problem.

Parveen lived for decades on a pavement in Sewri, in the north-eastern part of Mumbai. The threat of eviction was constant. Yet, thousands of families like hers remained where they were, making a living by earning daily wages, using public — usually dysfunctional — toilets, and awaiting with dread for the inevitable flooding followed by disease that descended on them every monsoon.

In 2008, Parveen and her neighbours were told that they were going to be resettled. The road had to be widened. The pavement was to be broken. So they would have to move. “I was dying with happiness,” says Parveen. She had never imagined that in her lifetime, she would live in a pucca house.

With tremendous excitement, the families moved to the distant suburb of Govandi. What they found was certainly pucca; a seven-storey building identical to the hundreds scattered across Mumbai as part of the slum resettlement scheme. But you stepped inside and there was nothing. The rooms that were supposed to be their new homes were just bare walls; no lights, no fans, no windows, no doors, no toilet seats, no taps. Anything that could be stolen had been removed. But they had a roof over their heads. And for that they were supposed to be grateful!

The other side of resettlement is rehabilitation. In their new neighbourhood, far from the old, Parveen and the others could find no work. Parveen’s husband was a head loader. Earlier, he could walk to the place where he got daily work. Now he would have to spend a good part of what he earned to travel before finding work. Women who worked as domestics in a mixed neighbourhood had no work in an area inhabited entirely by people like them. So this was a strange formulate for rehabilitation.

Worse still, the area where most such urban poor have been ‘dumped’, as Parveen says, is right next to Mumbai’s garbage dumping ground. According to a recent journalistic investigation, people living in this area suffer from acute health problems, particularly respiratory, and their life expectancy is a third lower than that of people in other parts of Mumbai.

But the point of telling this story is not just to paint the grim reality of being a poor person in a very rich city, but also to recount the unbreakable spirit of women like Parveen. Instead of throwing up her hands in despair, Parveen set about dealing with the problem. With the help of her women’s group and support from the federation of slum dwellers, they have fixed their building. There are doors and windows and taps. There is water. There is even a lift, something that they did not have for the first four years.

Parveen breathes fire when she speaks of the authorities and their attitude towards poor people. But she will not let that get her down. What stands out is her determination to fight the system by organising other women like her. That surely is a recipe to deal with despair.