Monday, February 27, 2012

Raghubir Singh: Catching the Breeze*

Photo taken in Hathod village, Jaipur, Rajasthan

The first reaction is disbelief. It takes time to absorb the simple, delicious freedom in the backdrop of an impoverished Indian village. Two teens are touching the sky. A faithful old Neem tree and a trustworthy jute rope is all it takes to forget that they are women.

As they race against wind, their neighbors, siblings and friends find no novelty in the dizzying heights these women have reached. They look disinterested, as if they cannot determine what makes this trivial breather so interesting to a city man.

But this is as high as the two women swinging on the makeshift swing will perhaps go in their entire life. For Hathod, in Rajasthan, India, is a village where strict caste and class rules still apply. Someone else – the society, their husband, or their in-laws will soon begin to dictate the heights they can reach.

Raghubir Singh took this photo in 1975. The girls, from an assortment of ages between three to thirteen, perhaps even their young mothers, might have yearned to go to schools. Their parents might have entertained the idea for some time, too. But, in such villages, where Hindu women of certain castes are still expected to follow the purdah system, dropout rates are high.

There is no money to buy the books and the shoes, teachers don’t teach, schools have no functional toilets or water, or if everything is in place, the nearest high school may be miles away. Public transport is often undependable, certainly risky for young girls. They do give it a try though, some brave ones. Many daughters walk their way to school, their parents grudgingly, but not without some faint beam of pride, allow. But it doesn’t last long, this pursuit of the dream of a better life.

After months of juggling dreams with duties, girls give up. Because they no longer have the energy to cook, clean, milk the buffalo, and take care of their armies of siblings after coming home. These are the tasks girls cannot wash their hands off in a household with a single earning member. Or sometimes parents cannot afford to teach more kids at a time, and the privilege of education is then is given to the male children. But these women are lucky. At least they are alive.

The government and the citizens (often even well-educated, so-called modern families) systematically ignore India’s female feticide epidemic because of misplaced cultural preferences, socio-economic factors vote-bank politics and illiteracy. According to Census 2011, Rajasthan has a sex ratio of 926 girls between ages 0 to 6 for 1000 males in the same age group. India’s overall sex ratio is 940.

A Unicef report says fetal sex determination and sex selective abortion by unethical medical professionals has today grown into a Rs. 1,000 crore industry (US$ 244 million). The act that targets doctors and technicians who offer illegal ultrasound tests gathers dust in legal jargon, social connivance and corruption. Till May 2006, as many as 22 out of 35 states in India did not report a single violation of the act. (1)

While they were waiting for medical science to catch up, they devised other ways to kill their infant girls. My grandmother told me that in olden days, a euphemism was used to identify people who killed their newborn girls. Gujarati for “Doodh peeti kari,” roughly translates to “We started feeding her milk.” This essentially meant a newborn girl child was drowned in a big cauldron of milk.

In India, if a girl is lucky to be born, she becomes a woman sooner than in any other part of the world. Till then, they let her swing on a tree and touch the rainbow.

Gauri Gharpure

* This is another assignment for Michael Powell's class, Writing about life along the poverty line. I loved this homework, it was to select (or shoot) a photo of a neighbourhood / person / process and write about what emotions, ideas and issues the image evokes. This piece is my interpretation of the visuals, it is personal, and may be completely different from Singh's rationale for taking the photo, or being drawn to the scene.

Links and References:

1) The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act: UNICEF India:
3) Raghubir Singh:
4) International Humanist and Ethical Union:
5) Census 2011, India:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Clarence Page: Giants at J-School

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Clarence Page responded to the email within minutes and gave some suggestions for my notes. I have re-numbered the points he mentions in the email (excerpt below), but his message makes sense if read with the PDF.

Here is what Page said:

I'm back!
I read through your notes and congratulate you on your good job.
I would only make the following suggestions for clarity:

I would replace lines 10, 11 and 12 with this:

Politics is all perception, in that sense, all political speech is code. Liberals, for example, like to speak of “have’s and have-nots.” But the conservative governor of Indiana told the nation, in his State of the Union address, that America is “a country of haves and soon-to-haves.” The nuances of difference speak to their different perceptions of opportunity in this country and what government’s role should be --or not be—in reducing income inequality *..........
......... Let me know if you have any other questions and, please, enjoy your weekend!

How can you avoid marginalizing yourself, pigeon-holing in a certain niche?

1) Try different things. For example, I wrote a lot of obits. Obits have the essence of everything and you have the last word! Get the name right, get the age right
2) Once you are recognized as good, you have very good chance of not being pigeon-holed
3) Then you have a platform, start writing about politics, social change, then move to Op-Ed
4) When I started out on general assignment, I really wanted to be an entertainment writer. For a year in my early days, I covered the religion beat by day and reviewed rock music concerts at night. I used to say that I was the only “rock-and-religion reporter in Chicago.”
5) Always be curious, always be ready to see

*Point 4 above is in Page's words, as sent in the email.

How important is it for a reporter to be an extrovert? Or can an introvert be a good journalist? I asked this question :)

Like anything else in life, like cliff diving, with journalism, know your own capabilities. We had an excellent reporter. She was not just an introvert, she was timid. She once went to cover a story on elephants in the circus. And in all the photos, she was visibly scared. She wrote a story about how difficult the assignment was for her. But the editors wanted something fun. They asked, “Did you not enjoy at all?” “NO!” But she eventually wrote a happier story and we found a photo where she seemed to smile. She was never comfortable being a reporter, she hated talking to strangers, calling up people. But she was excellent. Eventually she asked to be moved to the desk and she’s doing great. So, it doesn’t hurt to be extrovert, but if you are not, be true to yourself.

Do not use photos, drawings or text on this blog without permission.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Saturday, February 04, 2012

A Walk in Harlem

The signal is red. The M 60 bus reaches the 116th & Broadway stop at 4:00 pm. It has three passengers, five more get in. Buzz-beep-slash: passengers swipe their Metro cards and find solitary seats. The driver’s belly droops over his belt. From behind his black goggles, he looks disinterestedly at those stepping in. A recorded female voice greets mechanically: “Thank you for riding the MTA.”

The bus takes a right turn off Amsterdam Avenue onto W 125 St . Outside the Harlem USA II Nails salon two black women stand smoking cigarettes. The shade of one’s jacket perfectly matches her brown highlights. The other is shorter, plump and wears a black jacket.

Are they poor?

But, poor men and women do not wear an identity badge. Poverty is a human reality that goes beyond color, race and time. The white man’s hunger is the same as the black man’s hunger.

The first sight on getting off the bus at W 125 St & Adam C Powell Blvd is a foot-long red signboard with “Pashmina” written in white all-caps. Below the sign hang red, green, black, navy blue, sky blue, rust, pink, zebra- and leopard-print shawls.

A sweet, fruity smell with the hint of strawberry and vanilla arises at the next stall. In old glass bottles that do not inspire much faith are synthetic fragrances with enchanting labels: Happy Women, Patchouli, Victoria’s Secret, Kush. Incense sticks are labeled Coco Mango, Mango Butter, Sandalwood and Tulasi.

“Nine-ninety-nine dollars,” says a man as his dark glasses fall low on his nose.

“Ten thousand. O good. She’s going for 30K," he says as he stares at the woman walking towards him. He sits on a square-iron fence that guards a barren tree outside the Diallo Cap store at 112 W, 125 St. But she sits instead of walking away, he's taken off guard. “It’s not safe to sit down, don’t you know wonderful? I am jealous of the girl. Sometimes you got to get the moves. Sometimes you got to take rest.”

He stands up leaning into his walking stick, uncomfortable with the woman’s silence and scribbling. He is wearing faded violet-blue pants, a thick jacket with a jean pocket stitched on the left arm, white gloves, gray cap, and a black bag hangs from his shoulders. He takes a short aimless walk but quickly returns to whisper, “You have to move, gorgeous.” As the woman gets up to go, he shouts a parting advice: “And don’t spend too much money!”

Walking sticks negotiate the busy footpath. Sounds of screeching tires, horns and music mix. A child stops to cough and resumes the tantrum, the sobbing. There’s a vacant lot at the corner of 125th & Lenox Ave. Near the fence, two women stand arguing.

“Fucking America. And nobody helps you in America,” says the older woman. The other is dressed in a black jacket with an intricate golden design and a black purse with similar gold work. Her hair is elaborately braided and tied back. The stud in her nose sparkles as she shouts, “Mom! You got the right papers … Listen … I will go to the church …”

A short old woman in a woolen brown cap stands outside a store. She wears a thick grey coat from which only the florescent orange hem of her dress is visible, thin skin-colored stockings and black shoes. She has a white tote bag painted with the stars and stripes of America.

A man in a Quantum A 4000 wheelchair tears open the plastic wrap and bites an orange candy stick. One leg is amputated at the knee, the other at the ankle. The ends of his cream pants are cut and tied up. An old paper tag that reads 11-10-11 is tied to the wheelchair. Near his hands he has hung a white plastic bag that contains a bottle of Coke.

Two men can be heard cursing from far away. As they come near the wheelchair, one of them shouts, “Shut the fuck up.” “I will call the police,” says the other. They walk away only to return quickly, still shouting and cursing with the same intensity.

The return journey is on foot.

The pleasant smell of cleaning detergent splashes outside the windows of the Outside Avenue store. A tall black man in a red sweatshirt diligently pushes a yellow trolley containing the cleaning liquid and mops. He walks with a slight limp in his right leg.

Near the same fence where the mother and daughter were arguing, now walks a blind man obeying his red-tipped walking stick. On the opposite side of the street, a man dressed in an ocean-blue robe and a hat that mimics the crown of the Statue of Liberty distributes pamphlets and shouts, “Taxes, taxes.”

The man with faded violet-blue jeans looks up again from the corner of his dark glasses and smiles, “O, she’s back!” The same strawberry-vanilla smell returns. The same shawls, the same people…

Are they poor?

-Gauri Gharpure

* This is the first assignment for Michael Powell's seminar "Writing about People Along the Poverty Line." It was a very fruitful experience in that that we were not allowed to talk with anyone while working on the piece. All energy spent in observation brought out much more than what is usually got in the hurry to ask questions and note down replies.