New Girl in the City

‘Khaman’ was how Gujarat was introduced to me before I knew where it was on the political map of India. This popular Gujarati snack justifies the taste of Gujarat, ‘khatta-meetha’ (tangy and sweet). Needless to mention, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel also played their significant roles in my formative years.

My roots and relatives are from western Uttar Pradesh but I was brought up in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand (yes it was the northern and better part of UP, thankfully only till the year 2000). There are diverse reasons for which I dislike UP as a state, as a culture. The biggest yet non-progressive state boasts of casteism, patriarchy, illiteracy, crime, no infrastructure, corrupt authorities, open sewers and closed minds. My ancestors said and I do believe them that we are Brahmins. Most Brahmins are extremely proud of their caste and used to look down upon others. Whether it has any bearing on their political choices or not, I can’t recall a single government in UP that made sense to me. I loved the Ganges, mountains, winters and the fusion of adventure and spirituality in Rishikesh yet I wanted to move out of North India. In all likelihood for better career prospects and growth, a new perspective, self-reliance or something more in life.

One not-so-fine day in 2007, I was searching for a topic to write about for a college magazine article. While reading and watching the news, I heard a sting audio clip from Gujarat riots. It was a telephonic conversation where the executor was describing to his senior how he cut across the womb of a heavily pregnant woman with his sword. To my utter disgust, there was a monstrous pride and content in his voice. Pride, an emotion that led to the ‘Gaurav Yatra’. I decided to research and write about incidents of communal violence in India and that audio stuck with me forever, so did the Gujarat Riots. At that time, khakhra, dhokla, Narendra Modi, Zahira Sheikh, Hindu-Muslim, Sabarmati, Babri, Sohrabuddin were the new words in my Gujarati dictionary. It was 2012 when I was in a distance relationship with a man from Gujarat and was confused about our future in 2013. These two were also decisive years for the socio-political shape of India. A part of every state, other than Gujarat, was screaming for ‘change’. Gujarat was rather cheerleading its then CM for PM candidacy. There wasn’t just one but millions of proud, swollen chests. I had heard about the good roads, uninterrupted power supply, ‘chaniya’ (traditional long and flowy skirts) clad girls roaming freely at night as definitions of developed Gujarat. Irrespective, I had a picture in mind far better than the realities of my region. The primary elements being a good job and an open-minded society. 2012 was also when the heart-wrenching Nirbhaya case happened and the evil Asharam was exposed. Narendra Modi visited him in jail to get his blessings for Lok Sabha elections. Not many may know that Asharam was close to Modi and had also funded Gujarat riots. In 2013, the intuitive Uttarakhand was left miserable by the fierce rains and Modi ji promised Ma Ganga to nurture it if he became the country’s chief. I was destined to begin my journey in Gujarat in the same year.

I liked the touristy nonchalance I felt on the roads, no one recognised me. Unfamiliarity, just like ignorance, is more comfortable at times. I had presumed language would be an issue but all the sabjiwalas, autowalas and kirana store kakas could communicate in Hindi. Of course, they did! What was I thinking! We are a proud Hindu Rashtra, aren’t we! I found strangers helpful and respectful. A notable consolation was no eve-teasing, cheap comments or bikes following in outdoor life. I also don’t remember seeing incidents of road rage, Gujaratis are not hostile. Perhaps they save their aggression for business and bargaining. My first Ganpati Pujan and I had a chance to mingle with other residents of our society. Food, extramarital, late night visitors with details of cars and clothes were the favourite topics. Some days later I was added to the society WhatsApp group and so started the Pro-Hindu, Anti-Muslim forwards, messages on why girls should dress up in a certain way etc. Summer of 2014 was lucky for Modi just like 2002 was lucky for him and Salman Khan. They both flew kites and discussed potential life partners on Uttarayan, months before Salman Khan’s innocent verdict. While searching for a new apartment in developed parts of Ahmedabad, we faced more questions about our caste, marital status, F&B habits and late night parties than financial status. I had expected Ahmedabad to offer great job opportunities after hearing much ado about development and foreign investments, but I hardly found MNCs here. My second job in the city was with a Real Estate broking firm and my profile required me to meet builders often. The conversations sometimes began with the communities they would not sell their properties to. It’s then I realised that builders are not just greedy but also casteist. 

People dislike Delhi here but love to see their beloved Modi sitting in Delhi; he’s never in Delhi is a different story altogether. Coming back, AAP may be at the receiving side of criticism for air pollution in Delhi, but this problem is not recent in the first place. Delhi air has been polluted since the late 90s, it has just worsened now like every other problem in India. It is not a phenomenon that can happen overnight right? Secondly, Ahmedabad is a highly polluted city itself. What’s more, the water here is much worse than that of Delhi. I faced several health issues during my first year here, thanks to air and water pollution. Two Climate Change Summits have already been attended by our homegrown PM and third is in the sewer-line. Higher GST on diesel cars and a liberal tax on petrol cars would have been more sensible than 12% GST on sanitary napkins. The little water poor Sabarmati has is dangerous to drink and Narmada water is the only saviour. Having said that, 65 per cent incompletion in Narmada Project is a fiasco in itself. The power supply is regular only in Ahmedabad because of privatisation. Many other parts of Gujarat face power cuts on a regular basis, along with the shortage of water. Remember ‘Toilets before Temples’? It has been four years, I still struggle on Ahmedabad roads, let alone other Indian cities and states. Contrary to my pre-wed beliefs, Gujarat has serious education issues, much worse than many other states in India. No wonder half of them take solace in the US. Other than countable exceptions, schools here can be well classified as bad schools, brat schools and international board Schools. The state government has had 22 glorious years to make a difference yet it believes 6 per cent of the total budget is sufficient allocation for education. Out of this only 3 per cent was actually put to use and the remaining 3 was probably donated to paid trolls. Recently I attended an event on macro and microstate of education in Gujarat and what I learnt was disturbing beyond imagination. Forget the poor infrastructure, shortage of teachers, senseless curriculum and exorbitantly high fee in private schools; there’s caste discrimination even in Anganwadis. Yes, in 2017! Dalit kids from many regions of Gujarat do not get glasses to drink water, they have to use hands. The plates for Anganwadis are numbered for kids of socially acceptable communities. The government may bluff many by screaming the number of girl enrolments and teachers recruited, but are they talking about a much higher rate of retiring teachers or girls dropping out at puberty? All the 8 speakers seemed highly frustrated with the current state. One of them made an observation, “People in Gujarat may be enterprising and risk takers, but they never protest. They sit in their living rooms and blabber but they never walk on roads and make their voices heard.”   

When I visit doctors here, my full name, age, marital status etc are taken for a record. I haven’t changed my surname after marriage, given a chance I wouldn’t use it at all. Forget just the surname, the receptionists would ask for a middle name too. When I tell them I don’t have any, they would still ask for my husband’s name and put it as my middle name. Why? I mean what business do doctors, nurses or anyone for that matter should have in adding names to my name? What are existing names for? Speaking of doctors, the lower, middle and upper middle class hardly has options for an affordable healthcare. Despite Ahmedabad being the hub of medical tourism, the masses have to either spend a bomb or suffer because of extortionate health care.

Whenever someone asks how I like Ahmedabad, my first reaction is that I find it balanced. It does look and feel like a tier-2 Indian city yet is not as maddening as Delhi or Mumbai. It may not have nightlife but late nights are safer. People may be communal but not criminal. Education is not good but people are enterprising. Ahmedabad is not cosmopolitan but cultured. What especially interests me is the small yet genuinely concerned, creative, intellectual and open-minded beings I have had the chance to know through work, events, interests or ideologies. These people are the only relief amidst an otherwise rigid and confused urban population. The fearless people who think and protest through art.

Looking at the past and present, I have realised that the rural population has more clarity than its urban counterpart. City dwellers may crib about issues but do nothing to solve it. Stagnation is comfortable. It makes me wonder at the impact of leadership or that of worshipping the wrong leader. 2002 is done and dusted, but Muslims can still not buy or rent properties in any developing/developed part of Ahmedabad. There have been murders of Muslims carrying beef despite having a good chunk of Hindu beef eaters around. No matter how much it is portrayed as a predominantly vegetarian state, at least 60 per cent of Gujarat’s population is non-vegetarian. Why should food, clothes, opinions and beliefs of common man bother the government? Don’t they have other problems to take care of? On one hand, they are silent at mob lynching and on the other, political babas advise people on the number of kids they should have. The violence against Dalits hasn’t moved the urban millennials. When Gujarat government makes double the revenue through prohibition in the name of Mahatma Gandhi or uses it to appease minorities for votes, then why should Jawahar Lal Nehru be blamed alone? Why not discuss the cronyism and protected corporate interests of Adanis? A Sardar statue worth three hundred crores against his own ideologies or a bullet train is the pseudo development that can compensate well for basic and real development. 

Let alone Gujarat, ever since Narendra Modi has come to power in Union government, there has been more of decline than development in India in ways more than one. Disregard for recognition of human rights, controlled mass media, paid trolls, caste politics, disdain for arts and intellectualism, fraudulent elections, suppression of labour, pseudo nationalism and Hindutva have fabricated a delusional democracy. Give me one speech that seemed like a PM’s speech from NaMo. Other than that of Philippines who joked about wanting to be the first to rape a woman who was gang-raped and killed during a campaign. He was after Congress and Rahul Gandhi as Gujarat’s CM and so is he as India’s PM. What went wrong in the past 70 years has been his discussion since 2012 when Rahul Gandhi has never even been the PM. Complete negligence of Parliament in desperation of Gujarat Elections is a grave matter. The whole country cannot be ignored for their home state. Whether it is for Vidhan Sabha or Lok Sabha elections, BJP never gives a mandate till the 11th hour. But visiting temples, talking communalism, crying and bragging about his poverty is always high on his agenda. Don’t people think before voting? The government has nothing to say about what it promises to do on winning yet public should vote for it. We are not badgered with the failures of this term for union or of past 22 years in the home state, are we even thinking about what we want now? Or we have accepted their dictatorship and ceased to want at all?

Just like the political Babas in India, Modi government is trying to become a cult and is sadly succeeding. Indians don’t like him, they worship him. That is his win! The illogical, poisonous devotion; like that for Ram Raheem and Asharam. The difference between Hinduism and Hindutva is the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Forget the country, there is no democracy left in WhatsApp groups with radical Hindus. Venom spitting BJP devotees are welcomed in a family group but there was intolerance towards my factual articles barring personal biases. Not just that, I was also given a call next morning asking why I hate Modi. When I asked my uncle why he worships him instead, he had no logical answer. First, he said what ‘ever’ he is doing is for the good of this country and because Rahul Gandhi is dumb. Then followed the wrongs done by Muslims. There is a big chunk that elects BJP only because it hates Muslims or Dalits, they will just never confess. I am not a Rahul Gandhi fan but I find it injudicious when people say that they vote for Modi because RaGa is stupid. Were these people his classmates? How can they judge him when he has never even been a CM or the PM? More importantly, even if the option is as simple as choosing between a party that’s corrupt & a party that’s both corrupt and murderous, isn’t the answer obvious? The reason UP could never develop despite its size and resources is this casteism. Now that BJP is in-charge of the entire nation and insecure in Modi’s home state, are things going to change in 2019? Will demonetization, miscalculated GST and 2G Scam verdict have any influence? Or are we happy becoming a country where the government is shameless enough to decide which castes should not marry, which movie should not release, which esteemed university should discontinue or which tribes should die? People who re-elect Yogi Adityanath in UP will be silent supporters of the dead children in Gorakhpur. People who re-elect BJP in India in 2019 will be supporters of killing people born to a faith they never chose.

There is no justice, only conquest for this government. They don’t fight to win, they fight not to lose. And here we are, working at OUR cost for the presumptions and privileges of their victory. This madman leading the blind is not obliged to convince but overpower, control and leave us at his mercy. We don’t have to lose to make him win. Absolute power is an end in itself. The urge to prevail, even more destructive! Questions on lips of the haunted have been sealed while the loudest voices have been hunted to graves, their whispers still echo. Resolutions are nothing more than failed decisions. 2018 is important because 2019 will follow. Will we shield it this time or will we become spectators to a monster dancing on the skeletons of our democracy?