Monday, August 3, 2015

Sab barabar hai (Everything is alright)

(This isn't just another piece of fiction. It's been barely four months since I moved into the corporate world, leaving behind my shortly-lived world of journalism. I don't know if it is nostalgia or the sheer wanting of getting back on the field, but I felt like I had to share this story that I had written in early 2012.)

2012 marked ten years since India witnessed one of the worst riots it had ever seen, in the state of Gujarat. Communal tensions hadn't changed much since then and we were on the lookout for how sports was helping ease tensions and unite people.
It was during the lookout for such a story that my photographer friend Priyanka Kaur Oberoi, who was then on an assignment in Ahmedabad, heard from local sources about a maidan which had transformed from a playground for people from all race, caste and religion to a hotbed for violence during the riots. The ground used to be used for playing mostly cricket pre-2002, but the day the riots began, it had apparently been turned into a no man's land. Allegedly, there used to be floodlights on both sides of the maidan, and two communities took refuge on either side, attacking anyone who made it across. This is the story of the search for that maidan

Pappu bhai has been driving the autorickshaw for more than 20 years in Ahmedabad, the largest city and former capital of the state of Gujarat. After arriving in Ahmedabad, he was the third auto driver to take Priyanka and me around the city. But unlike others who preferred to concentrate on getting us where we needed to be at, he was chatty and forthcoming.

We were accompanied by Rasheeda, a social worker, who was showing us around areas in the city where different sports were played. We went from Jamalpur to Behrampur and then to Danilimda. Many of the grounds had been taken up by the government and had been given out on rent. OUr guide didn't stay for long, as she rushed off to do some errands after dropping off us at Salem Housing Society in Danilimda, giving us the freedom of exploring the city in search of the infamous ground.

At the Salem Housing Society, we met Kantibhai, a security guard who was taking care of a piece of land owned by a prominent Gujarati businessman. Few kids were playing on the land that was meant for property development. We head to the kids, who as usual are fascinated by the DSLR camera in Priyanka's hands, and have by now stopped playing. But after coaxing them to play on, for us to click some pictures, they play doubly as hard.

Cricket bats lie next to a makeshift wicket made of stones and bricks at Salem Housing Society (Photo by Priyanka Kaur Oberoi) 
After a few shots, the kids come over to us, enquiring who we are and where we were from. We obliged and when we did the same back asking one boy what his name was, he nervously said – “Faizan”. He immediately received a nudge from his friend who whispered loudly into his ear  – “Don’t tell them your real name”. Faizan immediately corrects himself and tells us his name is Shahrukh Khan. We do not prod them more but spent a few more minutes with the kids. The boys tell us that they are at ground playing cricket whenever they get the chance and also divulges about their favourite cricketers - majority rooted for Sachin Tendulkar, while a few mentioned Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni too.

We head to Kantibhai to talk about the dhamaal, the word they use to mention about the riots that ensued in 2002 (dhamaal roughly translates to ruckus in Hindi). He asks us if we can see any curfew right now, and keeps on mentioning ‘sab baraabar hai’ (everything’s alright now), going on in detail about how bad things were and how more peaceful it is right now.

Kids enjoy a game of cricket at a land meant for property development at Salem Housing Society
(Photo by Priyanka Kaur Oberoi) 
“It is the parents who had a problem with their kids playing with somebody not from their community. But that has now changed, because there are larger pockets of each community, and they play among themselves. But when a storm comes it is the entire area that is affected. We have wanted peace and it is gundas who bring about any sort of disharmony in our society,” said Kantibhai.

A kid bowls to his friend at the ground (Photo by Priyanka Kaur Oberoi)
All this while Pappu bhai was waiting for us on the road with his autorickshaw. We head back to the auto, and he enquires about our next destination. We ask him to take us back to our hotel.

While on the way back, he tells us, “If you really want to see a ground that played a huge part in the dhamaal, then you should head out to Millat Nagar. That was one of the worst affected areas. They have a ground there by the name of Sone Ka Kheth. They used to play a number of games there – cricket, football, volleyball, you name it. But once the dhamaal began, it became no man’s land for the two communities that used to live together with such harmony.”

We ask him what became of the ground. He tells us that people still play in that area, but most of the ground has now been taken up by a new police station, that wasn’t there when the riots happened. We felt like we were getting somewhere courtesy of Pappu bhai and enquire more. He tells us most of the grounds and lands are now being used to construct houses and societies. We thanked Pappu bhai for the information, when he dropped us off at the hotel. We knew where to head next.


Early next morning we headed to Millat Nagar on the virtue of the previous day’s information from Pappu bhai. A dusty road welcomed us into the Millat Nagar area, laden with people, some with road side eateries, tea shops, some selling meat (quite a rarity in a mainly vegetarian state), alongside goats and cows roaming quite freely.

We found the maidan, and as Pappu bhai had mentioned, there was a huge police station on one side of the ground. On the other extreme stood a petrol pump, with a few high rises dotted around the same vicinity. We headed to one of the nearby buildings, for a birds eye view of the area.

The alleged infamous ground at Millat Nagar in 2012. Notice the kids playing gilli-danda (tip-cat) at the bottom.
(Photo by Nishath Nizar)
From the vantage point of the sixth floor, we could easily see the whole of Millat Nagar. The remainder of the ground was filled with mounds of dirt and sand that has now made it unplayable. Even then, we could find a bunch of kids playing gilli-danda (tip-cat). A road ran through the side of the ground. On the right side of the road was the Chandoli lake area with makeshift houses and dotted with mosques all around. And right on the other side was the ground, and to the north of it were pucca houses and flats. Separating these two distinct strata was a huge wall with barbed wires.

We mingle among the locals trying to find out what we heard about the ground was true, but all were quite wary and kept asking us who we were and what we were upto, rather than answering any of our question. The closest we came to was when a tea vendor told us that people used to play on the ground earlier, but now they cannot, without divulging as to why not.

Since it was the week of Milad-un-Nabi, the birth of Prophet Muhammed, the streets of Millat Nagar on the side of the Chandola lake was replete with colourful flags, lights and an aura of celebration. We decided to head into the slums to the side of the Chandola lake, where we could see a muezzin playing cricket with some kids.

Walking through the thin lanes, we encountered people making brooms, goats tethered to the front of homes, local artisans doing embroidery and all the hustle bustle of closed ghetto. We found our way through a path laden with human and animal excreta alike (with a kid actually doing his business in an open toilet) to get to the now dry Chandola lake in Leela ka Khetra.

A muezzin plays along with kids at the dried-up Chandola Lake in Millat Nagar
(Photo by Priyanka Kaur Oberoi)
The muezzin, called Mullaji by the kids tells us, “I have just come here for time pass. It’s fun to play with the kids once in a while. But if you really want to see a crowd, then you should come on a Sunday, when this entire lake barring the water body, is filled with numerous teams coming from all around the area. We do not let the distinction of being Hindu or Muslim come up here. This is the only place close by, where we can play, and that too only when the lake dries up. Once it is monsoon, this entire lake is filled up”.

There is no mention of the dhamaal, only of brotherhood and love. I volunteered to throw a few balls, which all got hit to the far end of the boundaries, by little kids. With that battering we left the place to head to Jamalpur, where Rasheeda was waiting for us.


You might have heard of the Sarkhej Roza and the Kirti Mandir in Gujarat, but not many of you must have heard of Kooch ki Masjid, one of the oldest mosques in Ahmedabad. That is where we headed to next or rather to the colony next to the Kooch ki Masjid.

Inside the Kooch ki Masjid colony. The streets were adorned with bright lights and there was prayers and music being played on the big loudspeakers on the occasion of the Prophet's birthday (Picture taken on phone, thus the poor quality)
(Photo by Nishath Nizar)
Rasheeda, our contact who had taken us around the city the past few days, had invited us to meet some friends that she had called over. A large gate welcomed us to the colony, with the words Hindu-Muslim komi ekta (Hindu-Muslim communal harmony) written in bold alongside symbols of each faith (an Om and a star and moon) drawn inside a circle.

“It was a personal tragedy for me in 2002. I lived across the street with my Hindu neighbours. But slowly, but steadily the segregation happened, and we now live in communal ghettos” says Rasheeda as she took us to her home.

The room, all of just 15 foot wide and 10 foot broad, has just the bare necessities, with two beds, a corner converted to kitchen space and a fridge. We are soon joined by her husband, Abdul Manaf, and two of her three children, Javed and Junaid.

“We are waiting for a bhai, who had organised a volleyball competition between the Muslims of this area and the slum dwellers near the Phool Bazaar area, near the banks of the river Sabarmati,” she tells us as she offers us cold drinks.

She had earlier been working with Aman Samuday and was now with the Jan Vikas Organisation. For the past 10 years she has been working closely with people who have been displaced, giving them place to stay, enquiring about their compensation from the government, their current psyche and much more.

In the midst of our conversation, Munaf confirms to us about the ground that we visited earlier. “It is true about Sone ka Khetr becoming a hotbed during the violence. What happened after 2002 is that the Hindus and Muslims living together near the (Chandola) talaab (lake) have moved away and live on the other side of the road. We don’t go to their area, they don’t come to our area. People want to live free now. So if there is something happening outside let it happen. If we live with people of our own community, then we have more trust among ourselves”, says Munaf.

There is also talk of how the peace that we see outside is not embedded deep within. There is still fear, there is still suspicion, but not shown more outwardly.

Meanwhile, the young man we have been waiting from comes into the room. Imtiaz Makrani, 24, runs his father’s grocery shop near the Kooch ki Masjid.

“My papa and uncle used to live in the slums near the Jagannath Mandir, and used to play with people from around that area. When we were kids, they would take us along with them. We've had a relation with them since then, and today only Hindus live in that area. But we continued playing with each other, even after the dhamaal. We decided to take this a step forward and decided to conduct a tournament, which went on for two weeks. There were five Muslim teams from our area, and five Hindu teams from different areas like Saraspur, Behrampur, Jagannath Mandir and Isanpur. In the end, the team from Jagannath Mandir won the tournament and were presented with a trophy sponsored by the local businesses,” explains Makrani.

He invites us to meet with the winning team at the volleyball court next to the Jagannath Mandir.

We walk towards the Phool Bazaar, where a crowd awaits us under floodlights. We were not able to differentiate the team from the spectators and it was some time before normalcy returned. Imtiaz introduces us to the players and vice-versa.

Solanki Urvesh Kanyalal is one of the players for the Jagannath Mandir team. He tells us that his father and his other family members used to play volleyball at the state and national level.

“Sport is that one binding factor that unites us all. Many people do say that sport doesn’t bind and that competition breeds more hatred. But tell me if that is the case; would Irfan bhai and Yusuf bhai be in the Indian team? They play for humanity, they play for India,” Kanyalal tell us.

We were also introduced to Pankajbhai Chauhan, president of the colony near the Jagannath Mandir, who has been instrumental in conducting tournaments in the area.

“There is no religion for a sportsperson. He wants to play in peace, and only more love can be spread by conducting tournaments like this, with Hindu-Muslim bhai playing side by side. And not just play, but also do everything together. Toh yeh danga fasaad ka koi maina rakhta nahin hai. Hum baichare se rahte hai, aur rahenge. (These riots do not have any meaning. We live in peace, and will continue to do so),” concluded Chauhan before they began their nightly practice routine.

Sport is not a cure-all for development problems. As a cultural phenomenon, it is a mirror of society and is just as complex and contradictory. It has been used in a number of ways by the United Nations, benefitting peace building, conflict resolution, communication and social mobilisation and so many more.

The people of Gujarat do not wish to delve on their past and carry a grudge for the rest of their life. Sports with its unique power to attract, mobilize and inspire is doing its part in bringing together communities. At the same time, the government of Gujarat need to realize that building infrastructure in the name of development, while at the same time neglecting the sporting requirements of a state, will only make legends like Vinoo Mankad turn in his grave and talents like the Pathan brothers, Pujara and Undadkat defect to other states.

From what we saw, heard and experienced in the few days that we stayed in Ahmedabad, one can not forget these lines by the Sufi saint poet Vali Gujarati:

Gujarat ke firaq se hai khaar khaar dil
Betaab hai seenay mane atish bahar dil
Marham nahin hai iske zakhm ka jahan mane
Shamshir e hijr se jo hua hai figar dil

(My heart is thorn- filled with longing for Gujarat
Restless, frantic, flame- wrapped in the spring
On earth there exists no balm for its wound
My heart split asunder by the dagger of separation)


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Live a little, love a little

Before the glitz, glamour and bling, and much way before grabbing global headlines for having the tallest, biggest or largest ‘whatevers’ and also hosting global events surprising many, the GCC was a much simpler place. The noise was lesser, the cars much grander and the general atmosphere itself was much relaxed.

The era I am talking about was pre-new millennium, when TV shows like Full House, The Wonder Years and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and cartoons like Captain Majid, Duck Tales, Johnny Quest and Swat Kats kept us entertained. It was a time when collecting Tazos and sticking Sun Top stickers just to get the elusive prize mentioned in the book was a challenge in itself (God knows how many Lays, Cheetos and Sun Tops must we have consumed for that) and it was also when Fridays meant coming back from Friday prayers to have mom’s ghee rice and chicken curry or biriyani,

Weekends meant grabbing the cricket bat and wickets and heading to the beach or park with your next door neighbour or the scores of friends and relatives peppered all over the city. If you were lucky, the trip would be down to your dad’s Sheikh’s farmhouse in the outskirts. That would entail a whole different level of fun, with the entire day spent in the pool, having a barbeque and countless number of games ranging from cards to board games to random running around. Hanging out was devoid of the technological dependence that we are so used to today.

Back then schools were in itself fun places to be, when competitions meant having fun with your friends. Team spirit took precedence over individual achievement. Exhibitions and local competitions didn’t need the tag of big cash prizes or names of sponsors plastered all over the prizes, stages, grounds and auditorium (and even the kids themselves). Adding to it there were no participation trophy, and nobody remained disheartened. A winner was lauded and everyone got their chance. Teachers were personal heroes, and connections more real.

Shopping in itself was a wondrous adventure, tagging along with your mom and dad, for the month’s supplies. Shopping giants didn’t litter around your city and your friendly next door supermarket had all that you needed. You’d like rolling the cart down the smaller isles, with only the essentials making it in. Gaining coupons for your purchases, your mom waited for months to exchange it for that one gram of gold or the cookware she’d been eyeing for a while.

Back in the day, public transport didn’t rip you off. Taxis were shared, buses were few, and the city was within your reach. Your parks and homes and malls weren’t kilometers apart, and your dad was your most reliable transport partner. His Toyota or Mazda or Mitsubishi did not compete with your friend’s dad’s cars nor did they with his. Cars were meant to be driven, not shown off. The general quality of cars also spoke volumes of their use, and some people never let go off with which they began with since they didn't make them like them anymore.

Awe-inducing technology back then was your CRT TV or VCR/VCP or your SEGA/Nintendo game console or satellite receiver that broadcasted a handful of channels from around the world. Moms/sisters/brothers would spend time with their best friend on phone for hours, and it wouldn’t tear a hole in the pocket of the user with a big bill at the end of the month. Semi-automatic washing machines ruled the roost, while dishwashers weren’t even in the scene. The more affluent afforded a brick-like GSM device, but other than that, personal tech was subjected to just a Walkman, brick game, Gameboy or Tamagotchi, all of which eventually lost out our interest in a couple of weeks’, months’ or years’ time.

Going back a decade or two, love letters weren’t in bits and bytes. Nobody cared who looked how at what time of the day and where. All that mattered was that the boy/girl leaning from the back of the seat would take the guts to pass the piece of note on to his/her crush. Innocence wasn’t lost and nor was bitching and cursing a way of life. Recesses were times to rush out and play, and were also when you could make your move. Romance was alive and genuineness marked the times.

Why have I gone to all this trouble just to reminisce of those days that I remember? I guess it is a grim reminder of who we were and what we’ve become.

TV shows for us are now plenty and at the tips of our fingers, while cartoons have literally died out, with quality taking a toll in both cases. Today, kids are fed on rubbish beyond compare and the only way out are the classic reruns on video sharing sites and one of the umpteen channels on television. Weekends are meant to splurge money, be it for movies, concerts or roaming in malls gaping at what to splurge on next. You might not even know the person living right across your hall, let alone your relatives in the city. Schools have become big business models. Fees dictates the quality and all kids are pampered or tortured to a level with needless knowledge and unhelpful assignments and exams. Shopping is a  disaster and we are spoilt for choice. Your friendly neighbourhood supermarkets have been taken over by corporate giants, with needless wastage accompanying our incessant buying. Public transport is as essential as anything, if you aren’t lucky enough to get your license (which you most probably wouldn't considering the sheer amount of luck that we carry with us). Malls and places are scattered all around, and to reach one another would be to quote Robert Frost - and miles to go before I sleep. Coming to technology, who isn’t face down looking at their mobile every two minutes? And it doesn’t end there – tablets, HD TV, HDR, laptops and console wars – we are cosntantly sucked into every vortex that cuts us off from the real world. Last, but not the least – love has lost all meaning. Relationships are dead and romance lifeless.

But let’s not tarry in what we have become. It isn’t too late to unbecome what we have become. Go out, meet friends and family, see the world beyond an artificial screen, shop at local markets, breathe some fresh air, cycle around your neighbourhood, play a game of hide and seek, create new things and for your own sake – live a little, love a little.