This appeared in Mumbai Mirror...
Why Sarojben matters more than Jashodaben…
Who on earth is Sarojben? Let me call her ‘Everywoman or Everyben’. I have known Sarojben for over thirty years. We meet just twice or thrice annually, but you know what? We KNOW each other. There is a level of mutual ‘pehchaan’ that goes beyond just meeting regularly. In any case, isn’t it true that one can meet a person every single day…. even share ones life with someone… and yet know nothing about him or her? Nothing of any consequence, that is. My friend Saroj lives in a village outside Amdavad. But her strenuous work takes her across India…. and straight into some of the most exclusive mansions. Saroj is by far the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to textiles and embroideries, craft skills and artisanal excellence. She has impeccable taste and an eye for beauty… for detail… that would be the envy of highly qualified curators and experts. But, get this - Saroj is unambiguously poor and technically illiterate.Though, to me she is one of the ‘richest’ and most ‘educated’ people I know. She travels from city to city carrying heavy loads in gigantic canvas bags that are stuffed with antique textiles, old borders, frayed shawls, embroidered blouses, ancient Garas, faded pichwais… and occasionally, a few brass objets she has chanced upon, carelessly discarded by rich patrons who now prefer to show off their Lladros and Laliques. It’s a hard, spartan life . But the wiry, fine boned Saroj has no complaints. I have seen her battling a serious illness herself …raising funds… borrowing money and paying absurd interest rates, to try and save her young daughter-in-law’s life ( the girl didn’t make it). Through all these travails, Saroj has hung on to her sanity, sense of humour and strength. An incredible amount of strength. Yes, there is a husband somewhere in the picture. Plus, a couple of sons, too. But it is a Saroj show all the way – and it is Saroj who provides for the family, grand children included.
Has Modi’s decade long sarkar impacted her life in any way? Enhanced and influenced it? Is her village taking advantage of all those programmes one keeps hearing about? Has she experienced the much touted ‘progress’ in her State? Benefitted from even a single scheme? Is Saroj aware of the several women’s empowerment initiatives? Does she have proper latrines, sanitation, clean drinking water at home? Nope,to all the above...but she isn’t one to moan and groan about these lapses. She is a highly intelligent woman, who has managed to survive using her robust common sense and sharp wits. Today, she is able to Whatsapp images of her finds – gorgeous Patolas and Tanchois, rare Pichwais and slightly worn out Jamewars. She has taught herself to store numbers in her cell phone and operate a bank account. But her life remains as challenging and arduous as it was when she first began taking her treasures from home to home and managing her precarious finances on the meager margins from those sales. She knows she has been ruthlessly exploited by wealthy patrons who have paid her a pittance… or not paid at all! She knows some of those fancy ladies have taken credit for locating and supporting those very weavers she has painstakingly discovered, travelling on foot from village to village looking for something precious and exquisite . Saroj is philosophical and wise. She shrugs it all away as a part of life. And bears zero ill will towards those who refuse to give her her due while basking in all the glory themselves.
I asked her whether she was excited at the prospect of Narendra Modi becoming the Prime Minister of India. Saroj laughed and asked me a counter question : “ If he didn’t bother about me as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, do you really think he will care about people like us once he goes to Delhi?” Her response made me think about Jashodaben. How different has her life been from Saroj’s? I’d say both women were sailing in the same boat. With one key difference. Saroj managed to rise above her adverse conditions and make something of her life through diligence and hard work. Who knows? Maybe Jashodaben’s fortunes are about to change overnight, now that she has been officially recognized as Narendra Modi’s legally wedded wife?
Life plays strange games with us. Those who make their own rules and stay afloat despite tremendous odds, are the hardy survivors who believe in keeping their heads down and getting on with the job. Like Saroj. There is so much to learn from this wonderful woman. I feel so privileged to call her my friend.
This apeeared in Asian Age...
Welcome to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party…
“We cannot stop loose motions by wearing tight briefs”, reads Shri S.S. Radhakrishnan’s eloquent poster. He is an Independent candidate from South Chennai, and wants to drive home his message in vivid, alarmingly graphic terms. Fair enough. I admire his courage of conviction. This is his way of registering a strong protest against corruption - unique and yucky as it might be! I don’t know this worthy gentleman (I found his priceless poster on Facebook). Chances are he’ll lose his deposit. But the man has to be admired for putting himself on the line and doing the right thing by his own personal definitions. In the same city, art impresario Sharan Apparao chose to make her own, equally unique political statement at a high profile fashion event , when she sported glittering earrings bearing the images of Amma Jayalalitha and her patron, the late MGR. Whether or not Ms. Apparao was doing so with her tongue firmly tucked into her cheek, her bold declaration had the chattering classes… well, chattering some more! If Sharon was indeed wearing her loyalty to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on her ear lobes, let’s just say besotted fans are capable of anything when it comes to worshipping their icons. And more power to Sharon for putting it out there.
The larger question is : Should high profile individuals reveal their political affiliations or not?Right now, Bollywood personalities are divided on this issue, when they really ought not to be. This week, an initiative spearheaded by Anjum Rajabali, a screen writer, urging his film fraternity to vote for a secular party was signed by several stars who agreed with Rajabali that “ the need of the hour is to protect our country’s secular foundation.” Those who came on board included Mahesh Bhatt and Nandita Das. While Madhur Bhandarkar and Anupam Kher voiced their dissent. Mukesh Bhatt pointed out that the film industry has always been ‘apolitical’ and that’s how it should remain. Really? Apolitical? Since when? Not true. The film industry in Mumbai has always had to kow- tow to and play ball with political parties – local and national. Given the somewhat dodgy nature of the movie business, political parties have consistently made strenuous efforts to muscle into ‘managing’ Bollywood. Whether it was the Shiv Sena offering protection against underworld threats years ago, or the Congress getting directly involved in Sanjay Dutt’s contentious criminal past, the close relationship between the movie and political world has always existed. Down South, there is a long history of politicians-mega stars exerting a powerful influence over voters. So, what are we talking about? If a Rajnikant invites Narendra Modi to a well-timed tea party and the pictures are flashed across India, what does it actually mean – two ‘friends’ sipping chai innocuously? That’s it?If Salim Khan,Salman Khan’s father, meets and greets BJP leaders, is he doing so without knowing the wider implications of that encounter? Let’s drop the charade and double speak for once. It is perfectly okay to declare where you stand. You must! It is also imperative to stick your neck out and take a position. If not now, then when? About time we as a nation , showed some guts and stopped cowering at the prospect of being hounded and harassed by leaders we may have moral issues with and perhaps, openly criticised. India is not North Korea. At least, not yet. India is not China (ditto). Correct me if I am wrong, but when I last checked, we were still a functioning democracy. So what the hell is wrong if one guy in Bollywood sends out an email to 350 colleagues and 60 of them sign the appeal for a ‘secular India’? Have these people committed a crime? Broken a law? Even assuming Anjum is a closet Congresswallah pretending to be neutral – so what? Is the content of his appeal abusive or derogatory? No, it isn’t. Is it rational and sane? Yes, it is. If anybody wishes to read between the lines, go right ahead . If someone thinks it’s a direct pitch to vote for the Congress party, again, that’s not a sin. So…what is all the fuss about?
I’ll tell you: No matter what Narendra Modi claims in television interviews about not being ‘vindictive’ if he comes to power, nobody believes him. Nobody wants to take that chance. Most people think twice, thrice, a hundred times, before saying anything critical about Modi. They quake at the prospect of Modi going after them if he wins. This kind of fear psychosis is not good for a nation. In fact, it is a terrible indictment. Why should any Indian live in fear? Of retribution ? Of speaking up? But, that awful fear exists! It is real… and it says a lot about what’s happening in the country. There is paranoia and that paranoia is pretty justified given what we have observed during the past few years. There are open threats being issued of throwing people into prison. Or of releasing those who are in prison. There is no mention of following the law of the land. How can Bollywood remain detached and uninvolved? Why should it? Why should ANYONE?
Going by what happens in Hollywood and how openly top stars back and even campaign for the candidates they support, why can’t we be equally upfront about our political loyalties? Revenge and retribution are scary words. It’s a shame they have found acceptance across the board… and with good reason. The people of India fear the wrath of Narendra Modi. A great leader only succeeds when the people of the country respect the person… trust him or her with their lives. When those very lives are threatened, when that precious bond of faith is broken, what one gets is a country under siege . Nothing suits India’s enemies better than an India that is terrified of itself.
As for me, I am definitely looking for tighter briefs. Much tighter!