Monday, March 21, 2022

My Podcast: The Human(e) Story

I'm stoked to share my first podcast with you on heart-to-heart chats with changemakers: The Human(e) Story! 

The Human(e) Story features my conversations with stalwarts of social impact in India like Venkat Krishnan of GiveIndia and Anshu Gupta of Goonj via six pillar questions including what drives them, which stories are special to them, and how should one contribute to the society. If you're interested in the Indian development sector either as a practitioner, aspirant or supporter; this series is for you!

Listen to the podcast trailer and episodes on:

Google Podcasts

Amazon Music

Apple Podcasts

This project is extremely special to me as it combines my love for creating something new from scratch in a new (audio) medium, emotive content, and checks off one more thing on my professional bucket list:) 

Do subscribe to the podcast on your favourite app to get notified when new episodes are added and please drop your thoughts/suggestions in the comments below!

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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Quarantine tales: How Bengalureans are coping with lockdown (The Hindu)

At 6:07 pm on Wednesday, keyboard tunes to Kishore Kumar’s song Yeh Shaam Mastaani… (This fun evening…) reverberated in the quad of a gated community in Bangalore. The occasion: Self-imposed quarantine due to spread of COVID-19.

It started as a call for ideas to keep one entertained during the quarantine on the Whatsapp group comprising residents of the apartment complex. “Balcony antakshari” was a suggestion that amused many. The one who proposed it explained the novel concept in tweet-sized instructions: “We just pick a time, get onto the balcony facing the courtyard and play antakshari for a bit.” Another informed participant on the group posted a short video of how the Italian musicians were singing and playing instruments from their balconies. Yet another resident offered for her son to play keyboard attached to speakers. That sealed it.

And so it was decided: It would be a 20-minute session on Wednesday at 6 pm when people would come to their balconies that look into a common courtyard and croon. Many like me started hovering around the balcony a little earlier than the designated time in excitement! And then a few minutes past 6 pm floated the familiar tune that beckoned some who weren’t on the Whatsapp group and some who were but had forgotten about the rendezvous. Young and young-at-heart, men and women gradually started popping in their balconies, some vigorously waving their hands at their long-lost neighbours. One of the following songs was the apt and relatable number Mere Samne Wali Khidki Mein… (In the window opposite to mine…). Very quickly, I realized that the intersection of my loudest and my suitable-to-human-ear voice could not travel beyond my balcony. I think many others who realized the same compensated with loud clapping at the end of each keyboard song-recital to make their presence felt and to appreciate the player’s efforts. And thus, “balcony antakshari” turned into “balcony concert.” The keyboard player became the community hero and compliments and wishes for a bright future were sent his way in wholesale on the Whatsapp group. The concert for the evening had ended with Chalte ChalteKabhi Alvida Na Kehna… (Never say goodbye…).

Now that we were hooked, we heeded to the advice. Next evening, a German lady whose father was an opera singer in Austria, offered to play his CDs from her balcony. And the day after that, a stereo blasted kids’ favorites like Prince Ali from Aladdin, Sunflower from Spiderman, and We Will Rock You by Queen from someone’s balcony.

Next up was drinks. Another resident showcased on the Whatsapp group a cocktail she had concocted and christened Corona Cashaya. The professional-looking creative that left others on the group drooling, had the beverage served on the rocks with a blob of ginger and a whole lemon artistically placed next to the glass. The post was not meant to make others jealous. The drink-maker had bottled three of the same and made them available free for grabs. “Will just drop at your door and leave,” she offered generously. “Important to keep spirits up!!” the post ended with a smiley. And thus began the auction on the group that lasted nine mighty minutes. This left some, who missed the window, enraged. And so, the next batch was promised.

Then came Sunday, March 22, when PM Modi had urged everyone across the nation to follow Janta Curfew i.e. to remain in their houses during the day as a drill for future lockdown. And the occupants in my residential complex did everything prescribed which is to do nothing at all. Children didn’t play in the quad, garbage collection was paused for the day, domestic help was not allowed to enter the premises etc. etc.

Such are the times in my gated community. Usual measures like sanitizers at the gate, recording temperature of the maids who come from outside, and closing access to common areas of the club-house like gym and pool, were implemented like they were in my friends’ gated communities in different parts of the city. In addition, COVID-19 has helped discover music lovers, mixologists, and patriots in my community so far.

(Here's the link to my article on The Hindu's website)

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Saturday, February 1, 2020

Family Trees (The Caravan Magazine)

Shyam Sunder Paliwal was the sarpanch of Piplantri, a village in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, between 2005 and 2010. His father helped a marble company establish a unit in the village. In return, the company let his family sell its scrap marble, making them affluent. Over the years, excessive marble mining and sporadic droughts caused a severe depletion in the village’s groundwater levels. Water could not be found in the area, even by drilling tube wells four hundred feet deep.
On 21 August 2006, Kiran, Paliwal’s 16-year-old daughter, died of dehydration after suffering from diarrhoea. Devastated by her death and recognising the urgent need to rejuvenate the water table, Paliwal launched the Kiran Nidhi Yojana, in 2007. The KNY mandates that the parents of a newborn girl plant 111 trees. The father or guardian of the girl are asked to pay Rs 10,000, while Rs 21,000 is collected from other villagers and philanthropists. The total amount of Rs 31,000 is invested in a fixed deposit, redeemable when the girl turns 18 years old. The money is expected to be used to fund her higher education and wedding. In exchange, the parents are asked to sign an affidavit promising to take care of the trees and not marry off their daughter until she attains adulthood. After the wedding, the trees become the property of the panchayat, with any income they generate being used for developmental activities.
Paliwal’s biggest challenge in implementing the scheme, he told me, was “to recover the government land that was encroached.” Convincing villagers, who saw the economic benefits of the scheme, was relatively easier. The KNY is now linked to the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, a central-government deposit scheme launched in 2015, as part of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign.
(Continue reading the remaining part of the article here!)

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Monday, December 2, 2019

How some men want to change Meghalaya's matrilineal society (The Economic Times)

(Smita in Smit, cultural centre of Meghalaya, with King outside his royal hut!)

Marbakynsai Marbaniang, 37, guffaws as he recalls the time he moved into his wife’s mother’s house in Sohryngkham 10 years back. “Even the way you press Colgate is different,” he says. Before getting married, he used to press the toothpaste from the bottom. Now he presses the tube from the top. 

Marbaniang is among some 1.7 million people belonging to the Khasi-Jaintia Scheduled Tribes (ST) of Meghalaya, who follow the matrilineal system. Unlike most of India, where a sobbing bride moves into her husband’s house, a man in Meghalaya “adjusts” in his wife’s house after nuptials. Apart from the Khasi-Jaintia tribes in the state, the Garo tribe, which comprises nearly 30% of the state population of around 3 million, also follows the matrilineal culture of passing down the family name and ancestral property through the female line of descent. “Clan’s lineage and custody of ancestral property are the nerve centres around which the matrilineal system exists in Meghalaya,” says Banrida Langstieh, associate professor at the department of anthropology at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. 

This way of life, dating back centuries, is facing challenges as some men say it is not working for them, and the centrality of the maternal uncle disappears. It is becoming common for people to pass on acquired property (as against inherited assets) to male children. The problems faced by the men in these tribes are not dissimilar to what women face in the patriarchal norm elsewhere, and shines a light on the centrality of inheritance in gender dynamics. 

There are close to 500 matrilineal societies in the world, with Minangs of Indonesia being the largest of them with a population of over 4 million. The common denominator among all of them is that lineage of its members is traced through the mother’s side of the family. Their cultural practices (for example, post-marital residence and inheritance of property), however, vary. 

In India, Nairs in Kerala practised matriliny till 1925 when it was terminated by law. In contrast, although 80% of the tribal folk in Meghalaya have converted to Christianity and the state’s neighbours practise patriarchy like the rest of India, matriliny is the norm among a majority of the tribal populace in Meghalaya. Langstieh says the matrilineal culture in Meghalaya is the only surviving system of the sort in India on this scale. 

Shariti Syiem, 36, wife of Marbaniang, is the only daughter of her parents. The tribal tradition of the region prescribes that when a man marries the youngest (or only) daughter of a Khasi family, he has to settle in his mother-in-law’s house. “As Shariti is the only daughter, there was no escape for me but to join her family,” Marbaniang says. 

Among the Khasis, the youngest daughter is the steward of ancestral property, which had passed down to her mother from her grandmother and so on. But increasingly, acquired property doesn’t necessarily pass on along matrilineal lines. Syiem, who says she loves her son as much as her daughter, wants to give “something” to her son. Syiem runs a three-room bed-and-breakfast (BnB) in Sohryngkham (a village in East Khasi Hills, some 21 km from the capital Shillong) on the same premises as her ancestral house where she lives with her family. “I’ll give the BnB house to my son whereas the ancestral house will go to my daughter,” Syiem says. 

They Die at 40’A men’s rights group called Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT), meaning a wedge that stabilises the shaking home, has been advocating equitable division of property to all children irrespective of gender. Broadly, SRT has been striving to overturn matriliny and establish patriliny in the Khasi tribe since 1990. Keith Pariat, former president of SRT, argues that the Khasi men have been languishing because of matriliny, as they don’t have a sense of belonging either in their parents’ home or in their mother-in-law’s. “The Khasi boys drop out of school in Class V-VI, make merry with friends, drink and do drugs, play guitar, and die by 40,” Pariat says. 

The condition of Khasi men has degraded to such an extent, Pariat says, that Khasi women do not want to marry them. 

According to the National Family Health Survey 2005-06 data, 25% of Meghalaya citizenry marries inter-caste, compared with the national average of 10%. He says the tribal women of Meghalaya end up marrying immigrants from Bangladesh, for example, who may be lured by the income tax exemption accorded to STs under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Because of the union of Khasi women with non-Khasi men, the purity of the Khasi tribe is on the path to extinction, he argues. 

In addition to the matter of property, SRT has also been demanding a change, which is at the core of matrilineal culture — they want children to take the surnames of fathers rather than mothers. Pariat, who along with his three sisters and two brothers uses his father’s title, reasons that a father would feel more responsible towards his children if they belong to his clan. Across the country, Meghalaya, with around 22% single mothers, according to Census 2011, records the highest rate of abandonment of women by their husbands. While this is not a taboo in Khasi culture, it has an undeniable impact on children — they are twice as likely to drop out of school to help their single mothers earn, compared with kids raised by two parents. 

Sometimes though, material considerations come in the way of ideology. A Khasi is deemed to be one only if the person takes the name of the mother’s clan, according to the Khasi Lineage Act passed by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council. This is the key that unlocks reservation quotas for STs in jobs and education. “I allowed my daughter to use her mother’s title to collect the governor’s scholarship,” Pariat says. He adds that he also did not want his daughter to lose out on the ancestral property from her maternal side on account of using her paternal surname. Pariat’s son, however, retains his father’s title. 

SRT’s supporters are mostly concentrated in Shillong. The influence of the group’s ideology is limited in rural areas, which constitute 80% of the state. Smit, a village in the district of East Khasi Hills, is the cultural centre where the royal family lives. Arun Lyngdoh, 67, who dons a black Columbia Sportswear jacket, married the present queen mother 35 years ago (In Khasi royalty, brother of queen mother is the king). “In a Khasi family, a father may be the head but mother is the neck and the head turns wherever the neck turns,” he says. After marriage, Lyngdoh relocated to the royal wood-and-straw hut. Adjoining the royal residence is a brick-and-mortar house where Lyngdoh’s daughter lives with her husband. Lyngdoh listens to transistor radio in the royal hut, which has no electricity. But when he wants to watch TV, he visits his daughter’s house. “No, no, no shift to patriliny here,” Lyngdoh attests about the 5,000 subjects living in Smit. 

When a movement for patriliny similar to SRT erupted in 1961 in Cherrapunjee, the epicenter of Khasi culture, the three-dozen men of the group were chased by women in the bazaar with knives, old-timers recall. 

Langstieh says there is no written script suggesting the origin of matrilineal system in the tribes of the region. However, she adds that folktales suggest that their tribal ancestors were warriors from Southeast Asia who fought feuds with other tribes. Since there was no certainty of men returning from these battles, they gave entitlement of land and lineage to the women (whom they had left behind) so that their identity did not perish. 

The Vanishing Uncle

Moreover, the maternal uncle, who was a central figure in the original matrilineal structure, has been taking backstage in the region. Earlier, the maternal uncle would spend most of the day at his sister’s house, disciplining her children, and his earnings from cultivation would also go towards her household. However, as author and priest Sngi Lyngdoh wrote in the preface to the 1994 book The Khasis and Their Matrilineal System: “The present one is a system that has no root in history as a matrilineal system since the uncle as the centre of authority and economy, of discipline and of the government of the family as a clan, has disappeared from the scene… He does not live and work in his sister’s house anymore! He does not feed, clothe and look after his nephews and nieces anymore!” 

Marbaniang is a farmer who works and stays at the state government’s tea estate near Shillong for half of the week. Back in Sohryngkham for the remainder of the week, his wife and kids are his priority. “On some Sundays when I have to get a haircut, I visit my mother’s house in Shillong as the salon is next to the house,” he says. Marbaniang has four sisters. Although in the Khasis, the youngest daughter is supposed to take care of her parents while staying in the ancestral house, Marbaniang’s youngest sister moved to Prague after marrying a Punjabi. Therefore, his other sister is tending to their mother. 

Marbaniang realises that like his sister, his nine-year-old daughter might also marry a non-Khasi one day and they (his daughter and her husband) may choose to live as a nuclear family in their own house. “In that case, Shariti and I are mentally prepared to move into an old-age home,” he says. 

While his future son-in-law may not inhabit his wife’s house, Marbaniang wishes that his six year-old son follow in his footsteps and conforms to the culture of their ancestors from time immemorial. “Now I drink with my father-in-law,” says Marbaniang, as proof that he has adjusted to his in-law’s house and that life for a son-in-law like him gets better after a while. 

(Here's the article on ET's website)

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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Social Contract (The Caravan)

The Hyundai Santro that picked me up last December at a bus stop at Oon, a small town in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, had a bumper sticker that read, “musli ki kripa”—musli’s benevolence. Unlike the usual references on bumper stickers, musli was not some local deity. It was, in fact, an herb, a cash crop cultivated by farmers of the region, which is widely used for Ayurvedic medicines and sold at a price as high as R1,500 per kilogram. As we drove to the village of Raibidpura, Deepak Verma, who owned the car—he was the sole car owner among the farmers in his village—proudly claimed to have brought this unconventional crop to the village.

It was not musli, however, that had brought me to Raibidpura. I first heard about the village, in 2017, when I learnt about how its residents were excelling at contract bridge—a four-player card game, generally perceived as a game of the urban elite. Located just over twenty kilometres from the district headquarters, Raibidpura was predominantly a village of farmers. Deepak told me that the majority of the farmers in the village, which has a population of around five thousand people, belonged to the Gurjar community, which is classified as Other Backward Classes in Madhya Pradesh.

Raibidpura is not a typical Indian village. The farmers here have experimented with non-traditional crops such as musli. The crime rate is negligible. A significant part of the population consists of schoolteachers. Mass weddings are often held, to help lower expenses. And then, there is the obsession with bridge. The game, which is believed to have arrived in India in 1904, has been an integral part of Raibidpura’s culture for over five decades now.

(Read the remaining text of the piece here!)

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