I started my professional career as a teacher. I taught mathematics from the age of 14 to the age of 30. At the age of about 28, I started teaching journalism as well and I still teach that at the Social Communications Media Department of Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai. It’s a postgraduate course. So if you are a teacher, Hey Brother, we are Ham Kalaams—Hum Safars. We walk together. We know how easy it is sometimes when you have the right students, when you have the right material or you have the right intentions. And sometimes how completely unrewarding and unsatisfying teaching can be.
Another part of my teaching is through Mel Jhol. As a privileged middle class person—if you have some money in the bank and two sets of clothes you are privileged—I felt the need to start paying back in some way so I started working with Child Line. I did their manuals basically—I wrote them and I edited a lot of their manuals because I believe social service is not something that anybody can do. I believe social service is something that people who are trained in social sciences and have their MSW degrees—we should leave it to them and we bring whatever skills we have—which in my case is writing and editing—and help them with what they are doing. So I would never offer to man a 1098 phone call line. Because that’s not my deal. I would probably just start crying with the child’s story and that’s not going to help anybody. I worked with Child Line till it became a government project and it became very well funded, and I moved out. The founder of Child Line is Jeroo Billimoria who also founded Mel Jhol.
Mel Jhol in the beginning was this wonderful thing—after the 92 riots in Bombay—Calcutta was largely peaceful in ‘92—Salaam—huge respect for that—we suddenly watched the dream that was Bombay collapse. Bombay’s story was a fundamental story that said—We don’t have a God, we don’t have a religion, we have Mamman—Money is our God and everybody who is in this city is here to make a living and to earn as much as they can and go home. So any taxi driver or any worker in Bombay—you tap them on the shoulder and say ‘What do you want?’ —what they wanted is to earn enough money to retire to their village. Because Yahan ki hawa kharab hai! Pani kharab hai Yahan sab kuch kharab hai. Home is the beautiful untouched sylvan spot to which they would take this money and retire.
Bombay was a city of opportunities, it is not supposed to know anything about religion. And then suddenly we have religious riots. The city has never been the same again. Totally different! So a few of us got together, questioning, what was our failure? How did we fail the city? And we realized that school teaching, about values was in the hands of either Christians or non-Christians. The Christians were completely divided—you go this way, we will go that way. We will teach scriptures this side and you teach moral science that side. And moral science was very faintly concealed with Christian Theology—which is you know Do good, Be good, Respect your parents—that kind of stuff. Or it was in the hands of the RSS or in the hands of the Madrassas. It was always religious education concealed as citizenship education. There was no one talking citizenship, there was no one talking tolerance, there was no one talking coexistence, and there was no one talking Child Rights. So we started a programme, which was so idealistic and silly in retrospect because it was about twinning schools. So we took one very rich school and we took one municipality school and we brought the children together doing projects together, we got them to overcome prejudices, we got them talking to each other and we got so much money.
Funds were flooding in and we were doing a great job. But it was a very small impact. We took 40 kids from Villa Teresa High School and 40 kids from a municipality school and at the end they were great friends, they had relationships with each other, suddenly they weren’t thinking these poor kids are all illiterate, they just knew there is another form. There was work that had been done. But the amount of effort it took to put in was not commensurate. So how to upscale or to move out or to open up? That’s when we started moving into the village schools after about eight years of this completely ridiculous but nice work. Ridiculous I am saying not because its heart was wrong but there was no possibility of scaling it up, of touching many people and this is what we wanted. We want to touch as many people as possible. So we moved into village schools where we did a baseline study as to what exactly is a ‘Good Student’.
So this is what we found across Maharashtra—A good student does not look at the teacher in the face; a good student looks at his or her feet while talking to the teacher; a good student never asks a question in class; a good student never challenges any authority of anyone senior; a good student comes clean to the class in the morning—bathe in the morning before coming to class—which means you have to have access to water—which means your mother should be allowed to get water from the village well—but if she’s a Mahar she is not going to be able to get it—she gets one bucket of water home she’s not going to let you bathe with it because she has to cook and wash and do everything else with that bucket of water. So you are coming dirty to school. So you can be treated in a certain way—no its not a caste thing, its never a caste thing—but those children are fundamentally dirty because their parents don’t know how to look after them. This is our middle-class values wandering into villages and becoming a palimpsest for education, becomingspalimpsests for a model by which you create a certain kind of a student who is good and a certain kind of student who is not good. So we set about looking at ways in which to address this issue because this model child is a terrible monster. Its not someone who is getting an education. He/She is being turned into a mindless robot. There is no question of discussion.
The Indian Government signed on with the United Nations for the Rights of the Child. In India we didn’t need to have signed on with the United Nations. Because when our constitution was written it was very clearly stated that all the rights applied to all citizens. No one ever had to fight for women to get to vote. As soon as 1947 came along Universal Suffrage became available across the world. But with Universal Suffrage came one small problem. That Rights were associated with voting. Now children don’t vote. Therefore children’s issues are almost always outside the pail of the polity.
One of the wonderful things about our country is that there are so many stories—specially for writers and journalists—and they haven’t been told. So here’s a story for you. Once upon a time long ago—this is a real story—a child was born and when she was two years old she got polio, her sister also got polio. They both lay in bed. Two days later the sister got up and walked. Walked away from the polio. It didn’t touch her. But one sister was completely bed ridden. Couldn’t move anything except her face. Her mother who had not wanted this baby in the first place, was converted from being a Muslim woman—just an ordinary Muslim woman into this huge dynamo of a woman who rang up Nehru and said ‘I want space in Bombay’ for a children’s orthopedic hospital. So he said I will give it to you somewhere in Sion or Matunga. She said ‘No!’ If children who have special needs are of importance to us, I want them in prime locality at Haji Ali looking out over the sea so that when they are locked in their beds, they can’t move—they can at least look out at the sea. This woman—her name was Fatima Ismail—she hadn’t heard of anybody who was doing anything about polio. At that time nobody was doing anything about polio. If you got polio you just lived with it. There was nothing you could do about it. Sister Kenny was doing something, but in Australia. What Fatima did was she took her daughter and went off to Pune where she had heard there was a rehabilitation unit set up for the veterans of World War II. So she took her daughter there and told the army officer in charge ‘You have to look after my daughter’. British Army officer said ‘This is for adults. I have no experience with children and it is for people with war wounds, not for your daughter. Get her out of here.’ She would go everyday. So finally one day he said ‘Madam, don’t be silly. I am closing this unit down and going home. Its all over.’ She said ‘What are you doing with the equipment? He said ‘It’s none of your business. I am not going to tell a civilian.’ But Fatima would have tea with the guards. She asked them what are you going to do with this equipment? And they said we think we are selling it as kabada (junk). So she said ‘Nuts! All these children who are suffering from polio, they could use it.’ So they devised a plan. And Fatima Ismail’s plan was this.
You drive all the trucks with the equipment to the army depot and pretend you are unloading, but don’t unload. Then the supposedly empty trucks drive out again. And they were driven out and Fatima Ismail took charge and had them driven to Bombay to the army barracks! And wrote to Nehru and said I am starting the hospital in the army barracks until such time that you give me suitable land or space. She started a children’s orthopedic hospital. She was such a force of nature that in two years they threw her out. The hospital that she started, the board of trustees voted her out of the board.
Not fazed at all, she threw a party. Isn’t that a lovely idea? She threw a party for people who had disabilities and she said just come and meet other people who have disabilities. She expected 10 to 12 people. Five hundred turned up. At the end of the evening she had another idea for her second NGO. A Fellowship for the physically handicapped. All because one daughter had polio. She was converted, totally transformed into this woman of huge power talking about the rights of the disabled.
All these stories keep coming up and I keep encountering them and loving them and I want to tell them and experience them. And at the same time there is another moment, there is a very strange and very disturbing video that you can see on YouTube. It is about this junior schoolteacher in America who decides to show her white class what it means to be black. So what does she do? She announces to her class—from tomorrow anyone who has brown eyes will not be allowed to talk in class, will not be allowed to ask a question, will not be allowed to drink water from the same tap and will not be allowed to sit with the rest of the class. They have to sit separate.
Within a week their self image is down, their reading ability is down, their ability to calculate numbers—which should have nothing to do with all this—is gone, simply because they have been treated differently. Now I am reading Baluta by Daya Pawar—through his life the village children who are Chamars sit separately, they must bring their own cloth—gunny bags—fold them up and sit on them so they don’t dirty the floor. They cannot drink water from the water tap inside the school. They must wait outside the well until some passerby decides to take pity on them puts their own pot into the well fills water and pours it into their vessel for them. Imagine the effect, if in one week’s time you have reduced abilities in that school, imagine what a lifetime of this will do to a child. And therefore when I am reading Daya Pawar’s Baluta . . . let me explain first what the term Baluta means.
Baluta is this very strange caste based system—the idea that certain people who did certain work would never be paid for that instead they would be entitled to a share of the village produce. So gehun aaya so this is your share; rice aaya this is your share; coconuts this is your share; mangoes this is your share; haldi this is your share; which is all very well when harvest is happening. But what happens in between? What happens in between is the death of cattle. So they were allowed to eat cattle as well, including cows and you eat a cow in this country you become untouchable. This is the reason why I think Christianity and Islam failed to make inroads into Hinduism. Those guys eat everything they must really be dirty. I have a feeling that if Christianity had arrived in India and said we never eat any meat at all and no fish either, we only eat raw fruit, everyone would have become Christian. So this is my little side story. So when someone like this has been told all his life that his world is polluted that his touch is dirty that his entire being is suspect—he decides to write his autobiography he needs someone to encourage him to do it. And so Daya Pawar in the first chapter of his book splits himself into two Daya Pawars. To have a conversation. One-Daya Pawar is telling the other Daya Pawar to write the story. The other Daya Pawar is actually being encouraged to write. Its incredible. When you are reading it you say this is an autobiography. Why are there two people? Why are they talking to each other. What is going on and then you realize what’s happening. If tomorrow I were to say to you, as a woman, if I were to say to you you should write your memoirs—most women say to me— what is there, who will be interested, what did I do—including perhaps Fatima Ismail who set up three NGO’s—never wrote a word about her life’s story. You tell a man you should write your autobiography and he says When? Kitna paisa milega? Lets start tomorrow. That’s the difference. Now people who have been treated as marginal will absorb marginality without even knowing it. Women absorb marginality, without knowing it. Dalits absorb marginality without knowing it. And this becomes then the fight. How do we restore them to a centrality at least in their own eyes? They don’t have to be central in my eyes. But they have to be central in their own eyes. The reason why I translated Daya Pawar is because by writing his autobiography he broke thousands of years of silence. He said this is what it is like to be a Dalit. Before that Dalits had been writers. Tukaram for instance announces ‘I am a kunbi, live with it. When his enemies tell him to take his Abhangs and throw them in the river, they are doing that not because the Abhangas are bad, they are doing that because they are saying ‘You are a kunbi, you have no business writing. You have no business talking to God like this. Throw them into the river. And they are thrown in the river. Then the river of course returns the Abhangs and the Brahmins come to agree that this man might be sacred. Now this means Bhakti. The whole Bhakti tradition was supposed to break from the Brahmins. I just translated a beautiful bunch of songs and poems composed by women Bhakti Saints—it will be coming out later in the year. Gango Patra, for instance, was a sex worker, she says this repeatedly herself: This is what I did to my body but my soul is intact, this is what I did with my body but my heart was with you. Mukta bai, the first of them, the glorious of all poet-saints, for me, she is like T.S.Eliot—not for her ‘please please main teri charnon me aati hoon’—she is looking God in the eye and saying I know what you are but I still love you. She is talking from a position of great equality, but she knows what it is like to be an outcast. The whole family—four of them—greatest saints, born Brahmins were excommunicated because of what their father did. Long story, so I will not go into that here. Then they come back into the fold, get their caste certificates and they are reinstated, but they know what it is like to be an outsider. Women naturally know what it is like to be an outsider in our society. The Brahmin woman knows this as much as the Dalit woman. And sometimes, if you read for instance this magnificent book on the Antharjanams by Lalitha Antharjanam. Among the Namboodri Brahmins, no girl child ever goes out of the house for the first eight years. They are the Anthar Janams—Life Inside—they never wear clothes, they only wear the soft sheath of a banana leaf that is tied around their genitals. They get married and move to another house and never leave that house. They live inside. The man goes out and often has a Nair woman as a kept. He keeps bribing this Nair woman because she is in complete control. All she has to do when she doesn’t want her lover back, is to take his slippers and put them outside the house. Then he has to leave, he cannot come back. Next what he will do is sign off some land, and more land and more land. As a result, the Namboodri land is suddenly moving into Nair hands. Namboodris are losing their control over everything. And Communism is in the background, smiling and looking at the destruction of this society. But upto 1940’s these women were still inside the house, trapped. Outside, the Dalit women were being taken advantage of by these Namboodri Brahmins. It seems as if everything is going wrong.
Baluta came out in 1978 on December 29. It was a Christmas gift to the Marathi society. It was brought out by a bunch of Brahmins who came together and set up Granthalaya and the first book they launched was Baluta. And they have a runaway bestseller in their hands. I think the Bengali sphere is somewhat like that but often in the Marathi sphere a book review can cover two pages of a newspaper. There was a book called Dombivali Farce that came out about five years ago, which ended up taking five pages for reviews. Everybody wanted to say something about the book. And those who wanted to say something about the book were these big names, so the editors couldn’t say no. Imagine Mahasweta Devi saying, I’d like to write an essay and Amartya Sen also says I’d like to write an essay—so it was like that. Baluta was being talked about everywhere except in the Mahar society. They hated it. They said you were raking up muck from the community and throwing it all over. This was because Daya Pawar, unlike most writers who came after him, is telling you his story and he is telling it to you as honestly as he can. Which means he is saying Mahars were dirty, they were blowing their noses and wiping them on their sleeves, they didn’t bathe enough and they certainly didn’t read.
He says he could not talk to Mahars because they did not read, and he was reading all the time. But the people who were reading had no time or space for him because they were the Brahmins. So here his people rejected him because he was reading and there, they rejected him because of who he was. At one point, he says reading was like poison. And no middle-class person will say this. Because for us reading is part of a set of sacred acts, and especially in India where the book is like an emanation of Saraswati—so if it drops to the ground, you pick it up and touch it to your chest. And then of course you burn it also in public! And do other terrible things: attack people who have written books and pour ink on them, silence writers, you do all that also. But if reading is an act of Saraswati, suddenly reading acquires a caste colour, a white caste colour. Saraswati sits on a swan, a white swan. Therefore, a reader who is not from among us is a suspect. It’s a question now. Now imagine that person wants to become a writer. That’s the final act of coming in. They take one step back. Consider what I call the economy of information.
Christianity—let us look at Christianity as a system and not a thought, as a system of economy of information. What is the fundamental principle of Christianity? ‘Go, spread it on the mountain!’ Witness. Evangelize. Spread the good word. Go up and tell everybody, Jesus is here. What is the economy of information in Hinduism? Sanskrit. Not for you guys. For us, the elects. We know Sanskrit. You are not allowed to know Sanskrit. If a Dalit person were to hear the Vedas by mistake—pour boil lead in his ears. If he were to say the Vedas—cut out his tongue. These are the rules as they were laid out. The economy of information is exactly the opposite in the two systems of thought. Let us then consider the West. The West has Gutenberg, he set up the printing press and then print the Bible, send out copies, put them free inside hotel rooms. Now for Hinduism—don’t write it down, who knows who might get hold of it, only transmit it orally, from person to person. Upanishad—come sit by me and I will tell you. So this is one kind of tradition. Why do you think we had this slightly diffident attitude towards publishing? Because we don’t believe in sending it all out.
So the first time I went to America, I was walking down the street in New York, I saw a manhole cover which had written on it ‘Made in India’. I wrote to my editor and said ‘Do you know there are manhole covers in New York which are made in India’. He said ‘Do a story!’ So I said to my friend in New York, ‘Where can I get information about this?’ He said just email somebody. I mailed someone and he said, Sorry, I can’t tell you but this guy can and I am copying you in the mail. Next mail, 30 seconds later, a 40-page document—including the contracts, the amount paid per manhole cover, all the people who were associated with it. Everything! And then a follow up mail the next day enquiring ‘Have you got my mail, because you didn’t reply? If you need any more information, this is my phone number. Feel free to call me anytime between this specified time. And if you can’t call me during that time, this is my home phone number’. Imagine that happening in India. Imagine a bureaucrat telling you all this. You would have to do some sort of a sting operation to get stuff out of them. You’d have to have an RTI. In America they’d wonder what RTI is?
This is how I came to Baluta. Up till 1992 I thought of myself as an Indian citizen. Just a plain old Indian citizen like anybody else. I could vote. I had a share in polity just like anybody else. Then the 1992 riots happened in Bombay and I was walking down the street with another friend of mine—a journalist, well-travelled across the world and educated. I told her, ‘It’s terrible, why do people respond in this manner, killing each other for one mosque amongst so many mosques, one temple amongst so many temples, who needs another temple?’ And she turned around and said ‘You minorities never understand’. Who? Which minority? And then I realised that she was talking to me. Who are you to call me a minority? Ok, I said, well, a minority. Suddenly there is a tiny imperceptible shift in your self-perception—now you have been labeled a minority. I sit with my friends and think, surely you don't want to see that movie…but they might want to. I go into a bookstore and look at the shelves—shelves of rubbish and think surely no one wants to read this, but everyone wants to. Eventually there is a sense that there is more than one kind of minority, so of course it wasn't a total shock. But then you begin to have a lot more sympathy with outsiders; you begin to see that there are very sharply marked outsider statuses.
I think perhaps ‘92 made me a feminist, much more of a feminist. I grew up in a family full of women who would send you to buy sanitary napkins. You were not allowed to feel squeamish. I was told very clearly that whatever was owned by my parents would be half mine and half my sister’s. When Naresh Fernandes and I were doing an anthology called Bombay Voices, we were very clear that we wanted Dalit and Muslim voices. We wanted all the communities that composed Bombay to be represented—the Jews, the Parsis, and we got them. No city in the world is made up of one community, and no city is made up of only the community who lived there originally. A city is a construct of people coming in that makes the city, whatever the magnet be—jobs, or a port or films. And the energy of the city is more conceivable in the person who is there for two days because that person is there with hunger and desperation, eager to do any job that is available, and that person is treated with contempt. There is a great anthology which has a section by Daya Pawar, taken from Baluta. We put that piece in the Bombay Voices anthology. And I said to myself, I must read the book. But one reads a lot of books, and I didn't get around to it. Recently about 5 years ago, a friend was saying that the city has changed so much after the terrorist attacks and the floods, it is like another city altogether. There is a sense of fragility in the city and maybe you should do another anthology. Maybe just refresh the earlier one. Take some pieces out and put some in. I looked at the book, found the piece from Baluta and said ‘I have never read this book!’. So I went to Shanta Gokhale, and asked her where can I read a translation of Baluta? There was no translation available, and so I had to read it in Marathi. I went out and bought it.
Baluta is a Marathi book that is pirated, it is available on the streets as a cheap edition. I went out and bought the proper edition and I was absolutely floored by it. I asked Shanta Gokhale if it was possible for me to translate it, so we rang up Pragnya, Daya Pawar’s daughter, who asked me to go ahead. I started working on it, and immediately loved it. The challenges were many. It is not even regular Marathi; there is some Mahar dialect. Also, there is poetry, which is harder than translating prose. It would often take much more effort than a 20-page chapter.
We did a function at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Pragnya, Daya Pawar’s daughter was also there. Someone asked her if she had read the translation. She said that she hadn’t because she read Marathi, but her son can finally read what his grandfather wrote. Another sweet moment was when Mrs. Pawar was with me on stage in Pune. Someone asked her, ‘Madam you are not mentioned in the book much’. She said, when Daya Pawar was writing the book, I told him not to put me in it. Then the book came out, and I was feeling so bad because everyone was talking about it, and I wasn't in it. She smiled and said that she did the next best thing—she wrote her own book.
One question I get asked very often is whether I feel that Baluta now has a larger audience. One, Baluta already had a very large audience. It was pirated. When Pragnya was asked about the piracy of the book, she said it is fine because more people can read the book. Second, when they first printed Baluta, they printed 10,000 copies. It sold out before the New Year. They kept on printing editions. We printed 1000 copies. What will happen next is that Baluta will get a new readership, if not a bigger readership. Again, with certain languages the originals often sell thousands of copies, and many go into libraries, so you never know the impact of a book from the sales. Whereas in English, books that are bought go into personal libraries and that isn’t a multiplier. So Baluta has now moved across states. So now, it is available to someone from Bengal, and anywhere else where English is spoken.
The problem really is with bhasha to bhasha translation. How many books in Marathi are being translated into Bengali? There is a lovely story: a magazine in Kerala decided to run a competition—who is your favourite Malayali author? Guess who won—Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Often the first language that a book is being translated to is Malayalam. From Spanish to Malayalam. Who wrote these lines, “And here is a small, a little warning. All happy families are happy in the same way, all unhappy families are unhappy”. Anyone would say Leo Tolstoy and that this is the first sentence of Anna Karenina. But it is wrong. Constance Garnett, who was the translator added those lines. She thought the book needed it. That was the time very few people were reading Russian.
I also write subtitles for movies. I charge much more, and in every subtitle I write, I add one of my little jokes. And they still haven’t caught it!