Has Life Really Changed After Demonetisation?

The blackish-golden anniversary of Demonetisation. This was definitely the biggest defining moment politically in my lifetime. After all, I was not a child of the freedom movement, nor was I around during emergency. I was around when the economy opened up in the early 90s, but that was a gradual impact.

Something as explosive as this? Yep. First time. And a part of me hopes there will be more and a part of me hopes for a quieter life.

Has life really changed after demonetisation? Living in Bangalore, I could perhaps say yes. My grocery store accepts PayTM now. I can pay as low as 10 bucks in PayTM. People who would have never gotten a bank account are online now and use it frequently.

I’ve fallen back to the habit of carrying little to no cash (picked up on my days abroad). So yes, I can live without cash now.

But what about outside Bangalore?

I still ensure that I carry cash when I go traveling. Because especially after demonetisation, there is a fear of ATMs running dry. That is the biggest nightmare. Stranded somewhere without money. Because a lot of other towns and cities are not as happy with online transactions. Card machines don’t always work. Or they say they don’t work, because they still do not trust banking and online transactions.

The culture of cash and mistrust of banks is too deeply rooted in us to be removed by one round of demonetisation. It isn’t just the corrupt guys who like to keep cash. It is everyone. My parents. Maybe your parents. My neighbours. I’m sure your neighbours too.

Did corruption come down? I seriously doubt it, especially since the number people asking for bribes or cutting short things hasn’t really gone down.

But in a country like India, the only way we’ll ever do anything is if we are dragged, albeit, kicking and screaming. So maybe the demonetisation did not entirely work as intended but it did make us aware of online payments, get a section of people on it, and it taught us how to stand in line. Pretty good for a first attempt, I guess.

Happy anniversary!

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Travel The World Under $5000: Myth or Reality?

When I was 21, I wanted to travel the world. Well, that dream was the same since I was about 5 years ago and I found that the world extended beyond my road corner. Except at the age of 21, I was intent on finding a way to pay my way to travel the world.

Blogging was yet to become a full-time profession but there were fascinating travel blogs around any way and they all talked about ‘How to travel the world under $1000’ or ‘Quit Your Job & Travel The World’. But honestly, none of these seemed quite plausible at the moment. It required savings, planning and a whole bunch of other things, including one crucial element – a passport that allowed visa on arrival to a lot of countries. And that typically meant a U.S. or a European passport. Strike 1.

Secondly, coming from a country whose currency was at a disadvantage to the dollar, $5000 was a hell lot of money. At the average conversion rate of 65 bucks to a dollar, that was over 3 lakh Indian rupees. That’s the entire year’s salary of a starter job. So when I did the math, I realised that these blogs were written for people who were talking in $$$. Strike 2.

I needed an entirely new system for people like me. The ones who did not have the advantage of holding passports that entailed visa on arrival to all the cool places. The ones where airlines were yet to introduce the concept of ‘air miles’, let alone crazy last-minute deals.

My typical travel trip? Struggle to get a last minute train or bus ticket to a place that wasn’t longer than 12 hours. Then struggle to get a room that suck away my week-long budget and then fit in the rest. But I’m not complaining. I found some awesome deals, learnt to bargain (sorta) and had some great experiences.

Of course, I couldn’t ever fly off to Spain because I found a cheap airline ticket. I had to get a visa etc. But there was so much more to do here!

I discovered hidden cafes in Goa. Nearly missed my train in Hampi and then slept the rest of the day waiting for the train on the dusty platform. I found fantastic beach-side shacks that offered a great view of the ocean but nothing else in terms of comfort.

Traveling internationally as a U.S, U.K or European passport holder is a very different story from traveling as an Asian. We are more budget conscious (and naturally develop a calculator in your head when you’ve to figure out how much exactly you are paying for that slice of pizza in euros). So as an Indian, the under $5000 travel, did seem like a myth.

 

The Media & Our Portrayal

It has been nearly half a decade since I was in a place where I interacted with several people from countries and cultures. Such interactions are always interesting, even if you do not agree with everything you learn.

In recent times, there’s been a general dissatisfaction over the way things are portrayed in the media. I understand, as a former reporter, that “news” is something that is current and notable for its cause alone. But there is a horrible distillation of “news”, which essentially comes down to what is controversial and what is sensational. While some of the news that is spoken about has to be highlighted, it ends up being a one-side story all too often. The other side is rarely highlighted.

One such instance came to light in the recent meeting. I was chatting with a woman from Zimbabwe and I asked her to tell me something about her country that we wouldn’t know from reading news stories. She wrinkled her nose and said “There’s so much! Everyone only writes about how Zimbabwe is a horrible place with so much violence. But we’ve a beautiful city, and one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world.”

Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya is considered to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is supposedly more stunning than Niagara Falls, which gets a lot of PR and talk.

I had heard about it once upon a time, but honestly, I wouldn’t have recalled it without her mentioning it.

Our conversation continued, and she expressed surprise that I was wearing a dress. She had been worried about India, with much of the international coverage focussing on the horrible rapes in the country. Well, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. But from the sounds of it, India had been portrayed as a horrible country for women. That women were being raped everywhere, and a woman couldn’t walk in the streets in broad daylight alone.

We cannot deny that is entirely untrue. There are enough stories going around about this. Then again, the perception created is of a country that’s similar to the Middle East, with archaic laws. Where are the stories about the progress in India? Where are the stories about our vast growth and developments?

For a country with a population of over a billion, some of the advancements we’ve made are quite commendable. For a population that’s essentially as diverse as the world, some of the laws we’ve changed are definitely noteworthy.

I’m not going on a India-praising spree. I know the shortcomings of our country. But in recent times, some of the comments of international media are getting annoying.

We launch a space program, and they say why aren’t we spending more on removing poverty. We sign a climate agreement, and people ask about trade agreements.

I’m really glad that people from various countries came to India and saw the reality of the country.

The Zimbabwe woman’s parting statement was “India isn’t really any worse off than my country. I’m not sure why media makes it out to be a nightmare, then again, they write about my country as a violent one as well.”

So essentially going back to the question I had when I chose to quit reporting: Who do we believe?

The Kashmir Floods

The past few days have seen Kashmir feature quite prominently on my Facebook feed. There are groups I’ve been added to where Kashmiris from all over the world are posting asking about their relatives who they haven’t been able to contact etc.

To be honest, the floods did not really enter my mind initially. As Indians, we are a little numb to news of disasters. There is a particular threshold any disaster needs to cross to evoke emotions in us. It is probably because of the barrage of news we read every day in the media – suicides, rapes, murders, terrorist attacks of some sort, Naxalities killing someone, kidnapping. We live among a gruesome society and we accept it.

In the past few years, there have been quite a few calamities. I remember very few clearly – the tsunami wave, the floods in Uttarakhand and now, Kashmir.

Of the three, Kashmir seems to have the least amount of information outflow and a lot of chaos. Perhaps it was always like this but this time we see it because social media has finally caught up with a lot more people and they are pouring out their confusion onto the net.

Perhaps it is because Kashmir has a more educated, affluent section of population with a vast number of them living outside the state.

Perhaps it is because it is Kashmir.

I do not know, and frankly, am not sure I care.

What concerns me is the chaos. Why is there so much chaos? As a country who has a fair number of floods every year, we should have a decent plan of action to put into play every time. I am not going to compare the disasters because each are different in their own ways. But… why isn’t there a 12-point protocol? Or if there is, is it being enforced?

Why did it take a week for Google & India to come up with a missing persons site? Why isn’t there any website where people can click on a location and see what is happening there?

I know it is easy for me to comment on this, sitting in an arm chair, far away from all the chaos. I know this requires vast amount of ground resources. But we have one of the best fricking armies in the world, some of the most intelligent tech forces in the world and enough hands and legs to populate… well, you know. So why can’t we do this?

Or is that the people are resistant to government information? There are no mentions of the number of deaths in the floods – and I refuse to believe that there are none. What is the after plan? The worst part of a flood starts after the water has receded. Looting apart, diseases are a major concern. Restoration of spaces is a major concern, especially in a place like Kashmir where winter shows its fangs quite harshly.

Has social media brought some major flaws to the front or are we lagging behind this time? Was it this bad every time?

And this being Kashmir, how long will it take for the religious sentiments to surface and clash? And bring the army into the front again for a different purpose? And how much will this affect rescue operations?

There are hints of that on the forums that have been created to share information. Hints of Muslims gnashing their teeth at the thought of the army helping them. The Indian army. There are hints of aggression. But is also beautiful to see many others, regardless of religion, ask those people to shut up and go away and stop stirring trouble when everyone has united for something. It is these people we would need to stand strong soon… because inevitably, there will be resentment from some section of the society that enough was not done, or not done soon enough or some such thing. Because amidst all this chaos, we see only the chaos and miss the little sunshine that is beginning to help in tiny bits.

And lastly, a serious environment question that a friend of mine posed:

Is anyone thinking why these floods are happening? Does anyone even think of the ecological reasons behind this? The overdevelopment? The way tourism has destroyed some of these lands, the way development has destroyed them and left them open.

” If glaciers are melting, the mountains are being deforested, the wetlands have disappeared, traditional flood outflow channels are silted up, and there’s too much construction for the local environment to bear, then even one excessive or delayed rainfall is going to create an unmanageable catastrophe like we saw in June 2013 and are seeing again now.” the person said. 

India is headed the way of growth and industrialization. Which means great for the economy. But when I hear reports of mining projects being authorized without bothering with the environment reports, reports being squashed in the name of progress, my mind cannot help but envision us traveling in futuristic cars with oxygen masks through barren lands littered with skeletons.

There is a reason environment groups exist. There is a reason why they are labeled crazy. Maybe they are. But perhaps you need to be a little crazy to be able to shout out your beliefs from rooftops and exist. But without them, who would check the uncontrolled greed of the corporates, our uncontrolled lust for ‘progress’.

We drive further and further looking for greenery and forests. We see civilization eclipse the quaint mountainside roads we used to drive by in sheer silence and awe. We see that the roads are better, but there are also a 100 shops alongside it. We do not realise that this is the progress that we are heading for. We will have better roads connecting all cities, and the trees and animals will be pushed into the background. I would rather drive on a bad road with trees than an awesome road with buildings.

Perhaps I sound idealistic. Perhaps in real life I do go back and do things that I crib about here. But we all do that. But if we all contributed a fraction towards what we believe in, the world would be a better place.

I love progress. But I also love my trees and forests and beaches and the creatures in it. I do not think their lives are any less important than mine simply because we are on top of the food chain.

What is the point of 100 smart cities that might have to be rebuilt every few years, and we have to breathe through masks?

Growth of an Idiot

It was perhaps 5 years ago… I was still a reporter, I read voraciously, I wrote a lot about big topics and used a lot of big words.

I talked about the economic recession and how the US should have seen it coming. I talked about India and how we were a miracle and I wondered how long we would be able to keep the miracle going. I spoke strongly against caste/religion-based politics. I voted against the BJP and thought Congress was the lesser of the two evils. I wondered how much could Rahul Gandhi contribute to Indian politics considering the man had never really spent much time with the aam junta to understand what the Indian mindset needed. Yet I cheered the entry of young blood into Indian politics, something that I thought was sorely needed.

I participated in rallies, I signed petitions to save the whales, the dolphins, the tigers, the women, the children, the leaf. I believed that journalists were actually the watchdogs of the country. Any country. I was inspired by journalists like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tarun Tejpal, Vinod Jose, Aniruddha Bahal and several others whom I knew personally. I strongly believed in what I wrote, and I believed that I wrote a fair story – giving both sides equal importance and allowing the reader to judge what was true and what wasn’t.

I really did believe that.

What a naive idiot I was.

5 years can be quite a short period. But sitting in front of the computer screen as flashes of today’s news pass me, I wondered if the world really changed in the five years or I was just a blind, naive idiot.

True, somethings I knew, if not the extent of it. The corruption in the country would have serious ramifications, I knew. I did know the extent of it. Rahul Gandhi would not really be useful in everyday politics, I knew. I did not know he was a puppet who couldn’t string two intelligent words together. I knew that the field of journalism was getting more corporate and commercial. I never realised the extent of it.

The reporters of yesteryears have faded away into photographs hanging on the walls and journalism textbooks. The key word today to be a journalist is how fast you can get the story and how long the story can stay in the headlines.

True, this could have made for such awesome news and policing. But when that turns into sheer greed for news, you begin creating news. No news stays long enough for people to absorb it. Now, it is about the girl who got raped, tomorrow it is about a child who got raped, day after it is about the politician who stole some money, and after that, some building that caught fire due to some issues in construction.

The world moves at a much faster pace. The capacity to absorb news and care about has also shrunk.

Scams, allegations of corruption and rape have become so routine that I nearly missed the whole Asaram Babu case. And perhaps I would have let it slide as “yet another religious guy” if someone on Twitter had not pointed out that this was the same guy who said the Nirbhaya, the woman who was raped in Delhi in Dec 2012 could have saved herself by calling her attackers “brother”. I would have perhaps forgotten about it if an old photograph with “tips” to keep women safe at night did not make the rounds again.

I would not have been no pissed if I did not get a message saying “It is Breast Cancer Awareness” time again and asking me to post a silly status message on Facebook.

All these social platforms have scrambled our brains into thinking only in form of “status messages”. You go to a restaurant and you think of posting “Awesome restaurant serving kebabs in blah blah blah”. I decided I would not post every little action of mine on Facebook about 4 years ago. My entire friends’ list of 500 and whatever people did not need to know where I was, what I was eating and what I thought of something. They were subject to that anyway when they met me.

There was a time when I read interesting articles through my friends on Facebook and had good debates which made me think. These days, I turn to 140 characters for that – Twitter and interactions with Twitter Handles. I do not know these people and that makes me think harder about the composition of this world.

I know how articles are written, I know how PR releases are made. I know why reporters choose the articles they do, I know why some of them choose the ones they do. I know the ones that are lazy, I know the ones that write articles to further their own agenda. The percentage of Vinod Jose and Tarun Tejpals in the world of reporting, I realised, are very very very less. The ones who became reporters in a journey of searching for the truth. The ones who do their research and are suspicious about all information.

My first disillusionment with reporting came when a senior editor asked me to withdraw my story because the PR of the company claimed it was wrong. The PR provided no proof, but was backed by a multi billion dollar giant. And the editor wanted to oblige. Why? I’ll never know. He wouldn’t get any favours from the company, so maybe he was just scared of his job. We fought and reached an agreement, making the story more balanced. But perhaps that was the beginning of the journey where I wondered if what we were doing was really free of bias, of favours and fear. If what I was doing was actually making a difference at all.

They say that reporters like a particular kind of place… a little shady, a little cheap. It was attributed to our poor pay packets. But it was just that we liked no-nonsense, simple stuff. Where a glass of rum was charged for what it was and not for the crystal container it was poured into. We were supposed to tear into pretense.

Last week, several reporters were fired due to ‘budget’ issues from a major network. I wonder if even a percentage of them would rethink their career stands, or just jump headlong into another company that offers better packages. Would any of them think of all the hours they poured into making stories and telling stories, shaping them to suit corporate requirements? Of how many people would be doing the same to their story now?

It is a dog eat dog world.

Five years ago, I argued for punishment for all wrong-doers, especially celebrities. One of them ended up in jail. Several more probably never will. This is a country that rewards dishonesty. This is a country that feeds on apathy and ignorance. Somewhere, I thought, we need to begin to change that. We cannot go back to the past and change much of what happened. We perhaps cannot even punish the ones responsible for some horrendous deeds. But we could start here, from our generation.

But tonight, even that thought seems futile. It seems we are fast headed towards a precipice, and everyone on the bus just woke up and know to do nothing else but to shout and wring their hands.

I am an idiot.

The Most Expensive Piece of Property – The Woman

Rape, according to the Indian law, is a sexual act and a violation of that sexual body. The law narrowly defines what can and cannot constitute rape and many of these definitions are limited by its inclusions or exclusions of body parts, gender and acts. And most importantly, the mental state and reasoning behind such an act.

I fail to understand the reasoning behind the construction of such laws. But when you do look a little closer into the fabric of Indian culture and its society, you realise that it perhaps springs from the fact that sex is taboo in our society, talking about it is worse and rape is often a weapon that is used against a woman and her entire family, her caste and worse.

A woman is directly related to the family’s honour. She is like a pristine idol, kept in the depths of a temple, meant to be worshipped and needs to be protected against all invaders. She is not seen as an individual,  and is more of a very important piece of property. And like anything so precious, also a burden.

The easiest and the best way to break such honour would be to aim at the woman. To invade her, physically. To strip her and parade her around (which isn’t considered rape or anything close, according to Indian Law). The reasons could be plenty – a brother saw a woman from another caste/sect/religion; the family did something that the community believed was wrong; the woman chose to see herself as something more than mere property.

By this very definition, once a woman is out of the confines of the altar room, she becomes public property.

While this explanation might seem far fetched (and I’m sure there are detractors who would argue against this), this to me seems quite true.

How else would you explain the stripping and parading of a 40-year old woman, because her son was in a relationship with a woman from another caste? How else would you explain statements like ‘she asked for it because she was out with a man at night’? How else would you explain statements that a woman invited rape because she showed her legs?

Rape is a form of punishment and assertion of authority for all this and more. It could be because you challenged one’s authority by stepping out of your bounds, by questioning things you weren’t supposed to question, by doing things you weren’t supposed to do, by denying someone of things that they believed was their right.

This isn’t specific to men or women. Men get raped too in those little hell holes, but it is rarely talked about.

When the image of a woman is a piece of property, and when that is the image you have been shown through your life and the idea reinforced by people not punishing you when you sample some of the goods… one starts believing that. Perhaps movies do have a role to play… because in our movies, ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and a molestation can easily get the girl of dream into your arms.

Women believe that too… that they are property, meant to be taken care of, tended and protected. They believe it is their right and that their only duty is to look good, stand good and take care of the family. In the modern world, you could possibly have a ‘job’ that would keep you entertained and give you a little bit of spending money, but you do not think you should have an opinion of your own. The only thing you could aspire for is to look beautiful and provide good sex and children. And you use the technology of the modern world… creams that make you fairer, that tighten your vagina so you husband still ‘loves’ you.

Then you step out into this modern world where women do not think of themselves as property. If they do, they choose what to do with that property. And that angers you. What are you supposed to do except hit back at those images and reassert your beliefs? And you do not expect to be punished because you think what you are doing is your right, and nobody ever questioned you when you tested your limits in smaller ways earlier. Nobody slapped you away for pinching a woman’s ass on the bus. Nobody ever called you out for whistling at women on the road. You were just trying your hand at gaining a piece of the property that seemed to be out there for everyone, unguarded.

Is that what happens?

It could explain the statements made by several people. It could explain why the woman was always to blame. But then, this happens to men, women and children.

I don’t know. Perhaps this is a small part of the truth. Because this cannot explain the little things that people do to the ones they know and perhaps love. Is that just sheer perversion? Another twisted way of laying claim? Or another accession of power?

And this cannot explain what kind of animals could beat, maul, rape and do worse to a girl who was just trying to perhaps get home, and then live with it.

We are still looking for answers that creates such beasts.

That Banked Fire

There is a subdued sense of fury as I drive through the streets of Bangalore. It is quite late in the night, and the streets are fairly empty. But there is just enough traffic and casual laidbackness for the neighboring vehicle to peep into the other car, curious about its occupants. This is nothing new. Particularly since the removal of window tints, there has been a overwhelming share of stares into a woman-driven car.

I thought I had gotten used to it. You practice your blank stare, you practice studiously ignoring the auto driver or the tempo driver staring at your every move, even if it is as mundane as you fiddling with the stereo or lighting a smoke or applying lip balm. You learn to live with it.

But there is a banked fury that has begun to rear its head up at such stares. A intolerance towards that guy who is crossing the road just by your car and leers at you. The overwhelming urge to get out of the cocoon of your car and ask the guy what is so funny, if he has never seen a girl before.

I didn’t particularly relate it to the Delhi Bus Rape.

There have been numerous heinous incidents and they all pass, leaving things just the way they are before.

But, maybe, just maybe, we have reached the end of our tolerance. The latest attack has awakened the constant sense of insecurity that haunts us and we learn to tamp down.

A walk down Church Street – a street located right in the middle of the busy city – a little past 11 PM is harrowing. An attempt to buy cigarettes at a non-fancy store is always a little bit of an ordeal, starting from the 4 bucks you have to pay extra for a pack. Waiting in line at the fuel station a little late in the night is uncomfortable, with the curious glances.

You know that nothing is going to happen, but there is never a sense of ease.

This does not stop us from living. This cannot stop us from doing everyday things because then, we would have to stop living. We would have to sit indoors or be escorted by multiple bodyguards and male ones at that, to have a life.

Perhaps that is the wise thing to do. Not take risks.

But what does one define as risk? Going out with friends for dinner? Having a drink? Smoking? Wearing jeans and standing by the road, hailing an auto? All these things are risky in today’s modern world.

Cultural theorists, women-oriented organizations and everybody else is theorizing why there is an increase in the rape numbers.

They blamed the woman for dressing the way she did and living the way she did. They blamed her for going out with ‘male’ friends. Such an insult to both the sexes.

And if these were the reasons, when would it ever be safe for me to step out of my house? Should I wait indoors for someone else to make the streets safe for me? And how will they do that? By telling men not to rape? And when will people ever listen?

I cannot and will not put my life on hold while others try to figure out a solution for this. The government’s solution is to ask women not to work at night. They figure if there are no women out on the streets at night, there won’t be any to rape.

Perhaps it is foolhardy to travel alone. But I do like to travel. I do like to shoot. And it is hardly realistic to expect company on each of these trips. Why should my art, my work suffer because my country finds it strange I’m woman out on the streets alone?

I appreciate company. I appreciate a friend looking out when needed. But what about times when you have to go at it alone?

If we never stand up and say “I’m going to do this and you better learn to deal with it” how will things ever change?

If women had never stood up and said I wanna work too, where would we be today? The world is not a kind place that will give you things simply because you have a dream. You need to work at it.

Prince Charming on his White Horse is dead. And not needed. Let’s go be our own angels.