Monthly Archives: February 2013

Trafficking, tourism, and death penalties

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A brief update on the week for you.

Last Friday saw me attending a workshop on the prevention of trafficking, at the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore. It was good to learn a bit more about trafficking in general, and it highlighted lots of things I never knew. Karnataka it turns out is the second highest source region for trafficking in India, and a lot of girls are tricked away from Bangalore itself, at one of the major bus stations. Most shockingly, I learnt that the vast, vast majority of street beggars, especially those under the age of 12, have been trafficked (often from the other end of the country), and forced to beg under a person who holds them captive under threat or sedative drugs. More information on the institute can be found here.

Following this, I went to my first Hindi lesson the next day, where the domineering but very efficient teacher gave me a crash course in the alphabet and naming body parts. Classic beginner’s first lesson! Having spent the last week completing the homework she set me, I’m a little nervous for tomorrow’s second installment  I’d like to learn the second half of the alphabet though, so I can’t really find an excuse to run away!

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Jama Masjid

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Gateway at the fort

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Hanuman statue at a temple

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday became an unashamedly touristy day. I made a beeline for the Sri Kanteerava Stadium near Cubbon Park, where I eventually found what I was looking for after spending half an hour walking around the entire thing. The climbing wall was a stand-alone, outdoor facility with three sides – maybe 15 feet tall. It was totally abandoned though, and I didn’t have any ropes or quickdraws with which to climb, so I set to some low-level bouldering. My pumps were poorly suited to it however, and I soon had to give up, meaning to return for their climbing league in the near future.

Next on the list was a visit to the Jama Masjid about two kilometres southwest, where, after eventually finding the right entrance, unknowingly parked myself right where the 1’o’clock prayers would commence. Stupid, uncultured westerner. I even tried to be sensitive beforehand by finding my way up to the women’s quarters, but the room was filled with women crashed out asleep in the dark. After the Imam very gently directed me to shift my bum to a more suitable location, I made my way out to the nearby KR Market for some retail therapy.

It was a huge, stinking place, but full of activity and traders calling out. Between the cowpats and mud streaked by tyre treads, everything from shabji to sarees to books was on sale. Finding myself drawn to a fixed-price pile of saris on the pavement, I became part of a horde of women vying to get the best piece. In the end I settled for a dark green cotton blend sari, strangely embroidered in places with a baby’s face, and a second in red and gold satin sheen. Very pleased with my bargain purchases at 200 rupees each, I trotted off up the street, only to walk past several more stalls and shops selling the very same for only 150!

I carried on to Bangalore’s fort, Tipu Sultan’s Palace, the Bull Temple and Dodda Ganesha Temple. By the time I was finished, the opening night of the art exhibition in which my work was being displayed was about to begin.

There I met Emma, as the inauguration began. Various members of the small gathering added their taper to the large diya stood in the room’s centre, before a few individuals said some words about the One Billion Rising movement. Then we all had chai – obviously the most important part of the evening! I found my own painting in a corner, and was astounded at the price the gallery had placed on it. Prices on different canvases there ranged from 5000/- to 18,000/-. My own picture was up for 8000/-! Even in pound sterling that rounds to £100! And it’s not a painting I’m particularly proud of, given that I had only a few hours to produce it. Does this mean I can officially call myself an artist now?

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My painting on the theme of One Billion Rising

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Astounded by the price tag!

I didn’t think the week could get more exciting, but Mathews asked me on Tuesday morning to draft an emergency memorandum on the need to abolish the death penalty. Four men had been sentenced to death the day before, and SICHREM was desperately trying to halt the hangings.

He called me and Chithra – a hilarious, bossy and exceedingly kind lady – to the court where most of SICHREM’s staff were that day. They had been arrested for protesting in January on a different issue, and whilst the hearing continued Mathews finalised the document with me. It became a petition, which various individuals and civil society members signed at a protest later that day, and was given to the governor of Bangalore.

I’m pleased to say that the whole process had the desired result, staying the men’s deaths by six weeks. Some semblance of democracy has been restored in Bangalore, and SICHREM has been doing its job excellently once again! I feel proud to be part of this organisation.

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One Billion Rising in Cubbon Park, Bangalore

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Valentine’s Day this year was more special than usual. Instead of the romantic day out with a meal or flowers, I headed to CubbonPark for a different sort of event.As Julika and I wound our way through the park, we became increasingly lost. After several phone calls and accosting strangers for directions, we finally stumbled upon our destination, where we could see banners and more and more people milling around.

The crowd surrounded a group of young teenage girls performing a dance where they would hit a metal handheld block with small symbols in time with singers standing nearby. Then they began doing acrobatics, and group formations, which culminated in a fantastic three-tiered human pyramid.

Their mothers then started singing and dancing to the beat of a tambourine, as a much larger group of protesters made their way jubilantly across the busy junction next to the park.  Carrying banners and wearing ribbons tied around their heads, proclaiming an end to violence against women,  the women also started dancing in the road clashing sticks and singing. Some men accompanied them in the rear beating drums, and everyone was shouting slogans in Kannada. I felt like I was missing the significance of some of these events due to the language barrier, especially when a handful of balloons were suddenly and ceremoniously released amidst the confusion.

The ensuing disco rave however was much easier to be involved with. Every woman there, of which there were a few hundred, began jumping up and down ecstatically, and dragging me and Julika in to dance with them. There was a real feeling of being part of something bigger, and of barriers breaking down. Dalit women were dancing next to students and middle-class office workers. It was a very real celebration of being a woman, by women.After a few songs over the loudspeakers, I drifted away to watch a couple more dancing groups spread along the road further into the park. Each group had an entirely different style of music and dancing, but people were again joining in with wild fervour at every opportunity, no matter what their own cultural background.

Feeling the need to exercise my shrivelling artistic skill, I added my own message to the plain banner strung 50 feet along the fence. It was only after Julika had written her message, and we regrouped under the shade of the bamboo trees for a bit of relaxation, that I realised others were painting canvases. And these canvases were free! Anyone could grab one and paint their masterpiece as part of the event. There were some fantastic images emerging from others’ brushes, and I walked around for a bit trying to think of an idea which would fit the theme of One Billion Rising, and also stand up next to these other works.

Once it came I set up camp on some plastic chairs and cheekily borrowed a neighbour’s brushes. Many people were wondering around watching the painters, some with brushes, others using fingers. I was concentrating hard when a reporter squatted down next to my chair from the Hindu (a national newspaper) and began interviewing me! And I actually got a mention too! There were some more reporters from other papers and institutions, and a cameraman with a female reporter also panned past my canvas as they walked around the area. The Indian media really loves to include foreigners in its news.

3-4 hours and 24 mosquito bites later, I put the last touches to my canvas under torchlight from a stranger’s phone. The candlelit vigil was being held under the trees nearby, as individuals told their stories of survival and resistance, and everyone held a candle in a paper cup. I was sad to have missed it, but felt like I had released so much stress through the process of painting. When I walked my picture over to the stand I was told that all the works were being submitted to an exhibition. I couldn’t believe that not only had I been in the paper twice in one week, but I was now also having my artwork put into an actual gallery.

More importantly, the One Billion Rising event had been a fantastic success, with cars and police stopping to take note, lines of office workers pressed against the glass of their city towers for a better look, and so many women making a stand against the culture of violence which permeates not just Indian society, but so many societies across the world. Oh India you are spoiling me!

VIBGYOR – A week at Thrissur’s International Film Festival, Kerala

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Julika and I spent the afternoon of Wednesday last week sorting through the mountain of books and SICHREM-branded t-shirts that we would take to sell at Thrissur. The plan was to attend this six-day long film festival in Kerala’s cultural capital, manning a stall within the grounds as a means of small-scale fundraising.

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VIBGYOR film festival, Thrissur

After minimising the heavy books we had to carry, and streamlining our stock to the most popular texts, we took an auto back to my house to pack as much as possible into our two rucksacks, rather than the huge cumbersome holdall back they’d used to store them in at the office. A quick nap and some food, before taking a taxi to the bus station for our sleeper coach at 9:30pm. The bus was surprisingly comfortable – blankets, curtains, even a pillow. Julika and I shared a cosy double bed section, and despite having our own separate divots to sleep in, I still apparently tried to steal her blanket in my sleep.

9 hours later, and with some sleep, we arrived in the small city of Thrissur and decamped at the YMCA. The day was ours to do as we pleased, with preparations for the festival just beginning, so we walked into the centre where Lonely Planet assured us of a Hindu temple atop a hill with “sweeping metropolis views”. The small rise we found sitting in the middle of what was effectively a very large roundabout was at first sight so unrecognisably our destination that we thought we had got lost. It was only upon reading the sign by the lone building stood there that we realised those urban vistas translated as views of various shops across the road from this small, closed temple. Sigh.

Not to be perturbed, we ventured around the small park. As I was taking some pictures, Julika suddenly came running. She was so agitated I thought something bad had happened, until she shouted, “Elephants! Elephants! There are elephants!”

Spying on the elephants

Spying on the elephants

We climbed onto a stone wall which ran around the elephants’ enclosure, and watched as various men fed and washed different individuals. It quickly became apparent that the animals were tightly chained however, by two feet, and the nearest individual was blind and extremely aggressive and unhappy. It seemed an incredibly inhumane way to treat animals kept only for the purpose of temple festival duties, and we later got into a heated debate with our colleague on this subject. Considering the religious significance of elephants to Hinduism (Ganesh, the god of luck and prosperity, has the head of an elephant), it made even less sense to treat these fantastic animals with such impunity. I later found an encouraging article relating to this issue, which restored my hope a little.

The following five days of the festival ensued with much dancing and celebration. Choosing a prime spot near the entrance to the university campus where the festival was being held, each morning we would unpack our (increasingly lighter) bags onto the tables and await our first customers. In between manning the stall, which we set up under a temporary structure with a tin roof, Julika and I would take turns in watching different films.

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The focus for the VIBGYOR festival this February, in its 8th year, was stolen democracies. Even though my area of interest gravitates towards gender-related issues and sexual minorities, I was surprised by the number of films on show which I felt I had to watch. One of these was ‘Immoral Daughters’, by Nakul Sawhney, which explored honour killings and the cultural beliefs which perpetuate them. The stand-out clip for me was an interview with ganga-smoking village panchyat leaders. A young couple who married with their family’s consent were murdered by other villagers, with police complicity, for the crime of marrying too close within the community. When their families rose up against this act, panchyat leaders then ordered their excommunication. The cameraman asked one member of the panchyat whether rape and murder were treated in the same way, to which he replied, “No never. We never give excommunication for that.” Unbelievable.

There were so many other interesting films I saw, ranging from 5 minutes to an hour and a half in length, that it’s impossible to mention them all. The one that had the greatest impact on me is definitely worth mentioning though.

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Stolen Democracies

Anders Ostergaard’s ‘Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country’ documented the horrific military violence against Burmese citizens from the viewpoint of an underground network of covert journalists, who smuggled their footage via the internet and trusted couriers to report to the outside world. Illegally filmed on handheld cameras, the peaceful protests by Buddhist monks, students and citizens against the military government, and the military’s violent retaliation, were shown moment by moment. As events unfolded around the frontline cameramen, you were living it with them, and it was real fear I felt when the first people started being shot, and when huge crowds were running for their lives and being gunned down. It is not an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked by what I saw. The entire audience, which would normally raise a clap when the first credits started rolling, sat in stunned silence to the very end.

When the monk that we had seen around VIBGYOR over the past couple of days took the stage, we learnt that he had been one of those involved in the protests, and had seen it all. Nobody asked him any questions, but everyone listened when he started to speak. It was an unsettling end to the day.

The following morning brought a little more normality, with the usual and tiresome parade of men wanting our numbers/email/to go for a drink. I began to feel like I was on repeat, answering the same questions with every visitor to our stall. “Where are you from? What’s your name? Are you a student? Why are you in India? Oh you work for this charity? Why?” It was endless. Even Julika – with her seemingly limitless willing to chat to people – was tired by the end. I had already crawled under the table to hide and go to sleep.

This is not to say that there weren’t very positive moments either. After being interviewed by a journalist from Keralan newspaper ‘Manorama’, Julika and I found our photo in print the next day, to the delight of the other stall-holders and various film-goers.

Famous at last!

We also gained an impromptu invite to one of the VIBGYOR volunteer’s 18th birthday party, where the usual happy birthday was followed by different people performing songs, and a young lad with a guitar singing Enrique Iglesias tunes. As soon as the drums started playing however, everyone went crazy, dancing like it was the last thing they would ever do, and it was so great to see. On the penultimate night, I narrowly escaped performing at the cultural evening, when I read the performer’s list and to my horror saw my own name at number 23. People sang, people danced, people got drunk and had a good time.

   

My favourite part of the week though had to be meeting artist K.G. Babu. After approaching the stall on the Monday, this gently-spoken Keralan invited me and Julika to his family home, where he wanted to draw us. So Tuesday morning saw us breakfasting at his table on delicious coconut pancakes and scrambled egg, before he got to work on our portraits one at a time. Whilst it was Julika’s turn I wandered about the garden beneath all the different fruit trees – jackfruit, papaya, mango, cashew fruit, coconuts, large lemons (they looked like melons to me), and more – and stood on the levee next to the canal, hugely appreciating the strong breeze which blew away the humidity of Thrissur.

KG Babu's portrait of yours truly

KG Babu’s portrait of yours truly

Babu was kind enough to show me his studio, and the enamel paints he sometimes uses on his canvases. I couldn’t believe it when he offered the original sketch he had made of me. Clutching it in hand, we returned to our stall for the final hours of the festival.

It was a last-minute rush to the bus stand, and a sleepless trip back to Bangalore, but these little inconveniences were more than balanced out by the various unexpected and exciting events which unfolded through the week. To top it off, we made over 5000 rupees from selling books and SICHREM t-shirts, so felt we’d earned a day off from the office when we got home.

Art Galleries and Women’s Rights

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Art Galleries and Women’s Rights

Another exciting weekend as my third week in India draws to a close. Working days in the office so far this week have been fairly uneventful. I’ve been busy getting on with my assigned tasks, and though it’s very difficult working six days a week, sat in an office all day, I’m starting to get used to it.

Each morning I trawl the same six newspapers and select articles relating to human rights violations, or issues in general, and collect them to put into a quarterly report. This is my daily task for the year, and I’ll be doing four such reports, and hopefully the data will then contribute to a much larger annual report from SICHREM as a whole.

In addition to that, I’ve been working on a funding proposal for their Human Rights Helpline. My other longer-term task is to conduct a larger research project into the functioning of the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission; interviewing Members and the Chairperson, as well as several civil society groups dealing with the Commission. I’ll hopefully finish my research and get the report written at least by May, which will then be published as part of SICHREM’s series of short reports they are bringing out. My own name in print!

VIGBYOR 2013

More excitingly though, Julika and I got called into Mr Mathews’ office on Friday. Thinking this could only be bad, I was totally surprised when he asked if we wanted to go to Kerala on SICHREM’s behalf, all expenses paid. “I’ll give you some days to think about it and give me your decision,” he says. Julika and I both instantly told him it was a definite yes. So as of this Thursday, we’ll be manning a stall at Thrissur’s own international film festival – VIBGYOR – raising money from the sale of SICHREM’s own branded mugs etc. Even better, we’re free to watch whatever films we like in between stall sessions, and attend talks and debates that are also happening alongside. I’ve already been poring over my Lonely Planet guide for things to do.

On Saturday I got the chance to accompany Chithra to a meeting with representatives from several other NGOs, where the discussion centred around an upcoming event they were planning. It was only when we arrived that I learnt we were at the offices of Vimochana – a charity I’d heard about in England, who work with gender issues and women’s rights – so I was in my element! The event being organised was to coincide with the global movement 1 Billion Rising. This movement is a protest by women the world over against the growing culture of violence in so many countries, and aims to use dance and movement as a means of resistance and hope.

 

So the event is going to focus on these two themes, using dance, music, poetry and spoken word, street plays, painting, rangolis on the street, and a candle-lit march at sundown. Amidst the continuous stream of argument and voices talking over one another, it emerged that they hoped to mobilise between 5000 and 10,000 people! I had no idea how big this way going to be. So many passionate individuals from youth theatre groups were there, and people were talking about flash mobs, and occupying the Police Commissioner’s office to get permission for the day. I can’t wait to be involved! I’m hoping I might be able to offer to document the day in some form with my camera, or blogging – who knows.

After the meeting, I went back to my original plan for the half-day, and continued onto a supposedly good area to shop called Kammanahalli, where I ended up buying material for four outfits (they’re just all so nice).

Sunday came and I left to meet a fellow volunteer from 2WayDevelopment called Emma, who was stationed with street children’s charity BOSCO. After Thalli, and exchanging stories of our respective placements, we spent the hot afternoon in CubbonPark. It was free – a nice surprise in a country where even looking is a commodity – and full of couples and children playing cricket. The place was stuffed with huge bamboo stalks and lots of massive, spreading trees that I wish I knew the name of. To tick some things off the tourist list, we headed over to the Government-run museum and art gallery within the park, which again was only 4 Rs, with no foreigner’s tax! Though the museum was full of poorly-labelled pottery fragments and weaponry (some shining examples were “brick”, “clay pieces”, and “swords”), the art gallery had plenty of interesting statues (read lots of very busty women in a state of undress) and some modern canvases upstairs.

We discovered a quiet spot next to a lily pond, and sat for a bit in the shade, before following the sound of loud drum beats and music to an event in a stadium nearby. It turns out this was an inspirational event being held to encourage young Bangaloreans to volunteer in their communities. We could glimpse some men dancing and playing drums, but felt a bit out of place with everyone else there wearing the event’s branded t-shirt.

Leaving for MG Road, the main shopping street, we stopped at India’s version of Starbucks – Café Coffee Day. Though ludicrously priced, the slice of chocolate cake I had, with melting sauce and toffee centre, was so delicious I didn’t really care. I’ve been craving cake since I got here! After a quick look at some books further up the road, the afternoon was getting late, so we parted ways and planned to meet up again. Hopefully at 1 Billion Rising!

ONE IN THREE WOMEN ON THE PLANET WILL BE RAPED OR BEATEN IN HER LIFETIME.

ONE BILLION WOMEN VIOLATED IS AN ATROCITY

ONE BILLION WOMEN DANCING IS A REVOLUTION

On V-Day’s 15th Anniversary, 14 February 2013, we are inviting ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this violence. ONE BILLION RISING will move the earth, activating women and men across every country. V-Day wants the world to see our collective strength, our numbers, our solidarity across borders.

What does ONE BILLION look like? On 14 February 2013, it will look like a REVOLUTION.

via One Billion Rising.