Blood, Brothers

The Partition was much like a horror film: when Sir Cyril Radcliff hacked India and Pakistan into existence, blood hung in a mist over the countryside. And life was elsewhere.

“I was least affected by the Partition,” recalls film-maker MS Sathyu. “I was a student in Mysore in South India, living far away from the bloodshed that followed. Only years later, while living in Mumbai, after I met people who were forced to leave their homes, did I become aware that it was nothing short of a holocaust.”

That consciousness inspired Sathyu’s directorial debut, Garam Hawa (Scorching Winds), widely regarded as among the best films on the Partition. Based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai, and adapted for the screen by late poet Kaifi Azmi and scriptwriter Shama Zaidi, it was the first Hindi film to be made on the subject, nearly three decades after the division.

“A lot of film-makers and film financiers came from Punjab and the Sindh, and they had experienced the trauma firsthand. They just did not want to remind themselves of what they had suffered,” says Sathyu.

Now, over four decades after it was released in 1973, a digitally enhanced version is set to make a comeback in theatres across India. Although the Partition as a topic is now largely confined to school textbooks, Sathyu, 83, believes it continues to “hold historical and emotional value, especially for audiences born after India’s independence.”

Set in Agra in the months following the formation of India and Pakistan, Garam Hawa tells the story of a shoe manufacturer Salim Mirza and his family. Despite prejudice and economic pressure, Mirza chooses to stay on in India, even though close friends and relatives shift to Pakistan. It’s a decision that gradually tears his family apart. His daughter Amina’s childhood sweetheart migrates to Pakistan.

Mirza’s business suffers because lenders are hesitant to advance money to Muslim traders who may leave without repaying debts. The family loses its ancestral home. Amina commits suicide after another suitor too goes away to Pakistan. A heartbroken Mirza, left behind with his wife and son, is filled with doubt and contemplates migration.

Mirza’s optimist son Sikander, however, refuses to leave his homeland, preferring to soldier on. The film ends on a heart-wrenching note of hope, as Mirza follows his son into a morcha, with narrator Kaifi Azmi’s words ringing deep in the background, “Jo door se toofan ka karte hain nazaara, unke liye toofan vahaan bhi hai, yahan bhi. Dhaare mein jo mil jaaoge, ban jaaoge dhara, Ye vaqt ka elaan vahan bhi hai, yahan bhi.” (Who sees the storm coming from afar knows that what is there will soon be here …Who mingles with the streams knows this is the cry of the time, both there and here …)

In Sikander’s persona, the scriptwriters represented the voice of the young Indian Muslim. “What the film is trying to show is how people become victims of events they cannot control,” says Farooque Shakh, who was 23 when he played the part of Sikander. “The main character is completely apolitical. He is a decent, upright man trying to live a regular life, but that does not stop circumstances from pulling him down.”

Few films have had the enduring impact of Garam Hawa, which focuses not on the bloodshed, but the violence the Muslim community experienced from within. The sense of alienation and despair felt by a people desperate to hold on to a disappearing world is communicated through real-life experiences which the scriptwriters added to the original story. The scene where Mirza’s old mother hides in the kitchen and refuses to leave their ancestral home is based on an incident from the life of Shaukat Azmi, who plays Salim Mirza’s wife.

Garam Hawa is a standout film not only for daring to take up a sensitive period in Indian history. It was also the first Hindi film to look at the Muslim community in a nuanced manner. Prior to this were the so-called ‘classic’ Muslim socials of the ’50s and ’60s; popular, but their elaborate shayari and courtly sets had little connect with the lives led by ordinary Indian Muslims. The myopic portrayals continued into the ’70s and ’80s, where stock characters like the tawaif with the heart of gold, and the hero’s best friend were almost always Muslims.

“Invariably in Indian cinema, minority communities are depicted as caricatures and typeset. They are used as comic relief. This is not just for Muslims, but even for Christians, Parsis or Marwaris. They are shown as underworld dons or bootleggers and the portrayals are often crude,” says Sathyu.

“It’s not just about minorities,” adds veteran scriptwriter Javed Akhtar. “In recent years Hindi cinema has shied away from any social issue. We have created a new middle class which just wants to party. With the affluence that came in the ’90s, the urban middle class in India has become inward-looking and insular. They are not interested in seeing things that are not their problem, so middle-class or working-class issues have gone out of the frame.”

So will Garam Hawa touch a chord with this contemporary audience, the post-Partition generation, many of whom have little connection with or interest in events long past?

“When there is a film with human emotions, it will always have a resonance,” believes Shaikh. These problems exist throughout the world. So stories of this kind are pertinent wherever and whenever they are shown.”

The themes Garam Hawa touches on — alienation, exclusion, feeling isolated in one’s own home — have perhaps never been more relevant in India than today, where Muslims have complained of facing discrimination when it comes to renting or buying houses.

And it’s not just Muslims who are targeted. Housing segregation is now an open practice with advertisements freely proclaiming properties open for purchase only to Brahmins, non-Muslims or vegetarians. The practice, while legal, has contributed to a growing ghettoisation and alienation.

“Growing up I never faced any discrimination, even though my father was a Pathan and my mother a Hindu,” says Mumbai-based Anusha Khan. Khan, who is married to a Hindu, says things are different today. “My daughter keeps my last name as her middle name and she is questioned about it all the time by her friends. When I was growing up, my father wrote ‘Humanist’ in the religion column in school forms, and it was accepted. I do that as well, but I am always asked what that means and why. I feel the world was a more accepting place then. There are many more walls today.”

“Today we are vocal about our intolerance,” adds her husband, film director Victor Acharya. “Bigotry existed earlier too, but it was voiced behind closed doors. We cannot deny that it is intimidating to live in India today and be part of a faith that is globally perceived as not being safe. I am not sure things have changed much since Garam Hawa.”

“I have a Muslim colleague who goes to the mosque every Friday and observes roza; much like some Hindus fasting every Tuesday. But he is perceived differently. Today Garam Hawa would probably be about people like him. They are as well-entrenched as anyone else but come up against a few barriers,” says Acharya.

Adds Akhtar, “The film is still relevant and I don’t say this happily, because the whole problem should have been a part of history by now.”

Religion and geography gang up to ensure history still hits the headlines. But perhaps one day, thanks to films like Garam Hawa, we will let bygones be bygones.

This article appeared in the newspaper Dawn. The link to the piece is here

Get Thee from A to B

An independent brand positioning consultant, Rini Dutta spends a large part of her day commuting. She had come to terms with Bangalore’s infamous traffic jams. Driving a car saved her from elbow and briefcase jabs. But she was troubled by the environmental impact of using a car.
“I am always looking for ways to reduce my carbon footprint and prefer using buses as much as possible,” says Dutta, 39. “But the bus stop nearest to my house is too far to walk to, and you rarely get autos when you need them. I would end up using my car all the time, something I used to feel quite ashamed about.”
Around a month ago, Dutta heard about mGaadi, an autorickshaw-booking service, available on call and recently launched as an Android app. “It has brought down my travel costs significantly and there is the joy of using public transport,” says Dutta. All Dutta has to do is enter her destination on her smartphone, the GPS fixes on to her location and the auto arrives at her doorstep.
Launched in October, mGaadi is “a systemic and social enterprise solution to the urban commuting quagmire”, says co-founder Vishy Kuruganti. A technologist, Kuruganti, who founded, a social enterprise blog, and partner Solomon Prakash, a social entrepreneur and former country head for Ashoka India (a global organization that invests in social entrepreneurs), wanted to use emerging technology solutions to create a better commuting experience and a greener city.
“Our vision for a better city is one where more people use public transport and the overall cost of commuting, be it time, money and environmental impact, is dramatically reduced,” says Kuruganti.
mGaadi, which has so far advertised itself solely on social media, has roped in over 500 drivers in Bangalore. The drivers have to go by the meter and while many of the autos come equipped with GPS, the company is looking to add GPS to the remaining autos soon. The GPS enables the call centre to track them 24×7. For the pick-up service, an additional Rs.10 is levied above the fare. Since their launch, they have done about 500 rides.
From the way we work, socialize, communicate and now travel, this is yet another example of how increasing smartphone penetration across India is influencing lives. With India projected to become the world’s most populated country, and an increasing number of cars hitting the roads every year, commuter salvation may lie in computer technology
Ecocabs, the world’s first dial-a-cycle-rickshaw scheme started by urban mobility expert Navdeep Asija, is an example of how, with the right kind of support, such initiatives can take off in a big way. Asija started the service in 2008 in his hometown Fazilka, a small town in Punjab on the India-Pakistan border. A transport engineer, he hit upon the idea after he saw his mother struggling to get a rickshaw to go to the market.
“Small towns in Punjab are largely populated with elderly couples who live alone and depend on cycle rickshaws for their chores. I thought this would be a blessing for them,” says Asija. “Ninety-three per cent of Punjab has mobile penetration, while just one in 100 people own cars, so I thought the simplest solution was to link those who have phone connectivity”.
Fazilka already had an informal network of rickshaw stands. These were linked through local tea stalls where one could call and book a rickshaw. Today, the scheme operates across 23 cities in Punjab with the support of the local district administration and non-governmental organizations.
The service is customized for each city. For example, in Patiala, a popular tourist spot, rickshaw operators are also trained as tourist guides.
Now available as an Android app, the scheme won the 2011 National Award of Excellence in the area of non-motor transport.
For Mumbai-based engineers Nilesh Dungarwal, Rishabh Jhunjhunwala and Nisarg Shah, the idea of designing Meter Share, an app that promotes ride-sharing, was born out of their experience of negotiating traffic and crowded public transport as students. A free app, Meter Share relies on a number of services like Facebook and Google Maps to enable commuters to find others looking to use the same route. All one has to do is enter details into the “to” and “from” locations, and the app comes up with details of others on the same route. Introduced in Mumbai in April, Dungarwal says it has nearly 2,000 users.
“Everywhere in Mumbai people are seen fighting for that one elusive cab or auto to take them to their destination,” says Dungarwal, who designed the app with his friends when they were students at Mumbai’s Sardar Patel Institute of Technology. “But just because there is no centralized way through which they can communicate, they don’t collaborate, and travel alone and waste their empty seats. This made us think of a platform where people can share the empty seats with others travelling on the same route.”
“The beauty of it is that I am not restricted to a fixed set of people and can share my ride with anyone who is travelling on that route at that time,” says IT engineer Shrushti Parekh, who uses Meter Share for the 15km commute from her home in Malad to her office in Powai. Adds engineer Jignesh Darji: “I used to waste time earlier waiting for a bus. I spend about Rs.6, which is what I would pay as bus fare.” If you are worried about safety, you can choose to travel only with women.
Recently launched by software engineer Raxit Seth, Smartmumbaikar runs on similar lines. For a monthly charge of Rs.400, one can log in and connect with people who want to share autos and taxis or carpool on the same route.
“You are using fewer vehicles and creating greater access, so it’s all good,” says Madhav Pai, director of EMBARQ India, a not-for-profit initiative that works with authorities to find solutions to problems of urban mobility, and whose mission is to “catalyze and help implement sustainable transport solutions to improve the quality of life in cities”. The EMBARQ network works in different countries, teaming up with local transport authorities to reduce pollution, improve public health, and create safe urban public spaces.
“This whole trend of sharing is coming, and optimizing resources will make an impact. It is quite interesting that this is all being driven by the Internet,” says Pai, adding that it is critical to encourage such solutions to combat the growing threat posed by air pollution in India.
Kuruganti believes that getting all the stakeholders on board will provide greater impetus. “A majority of auto drivers are unbanked. If public and private sector banks provide priority lending to this sector, it would ease their job of acquiring GPS devices. Also, the cost of 2G data plans could be subsidized by the transport department.”
“In many countries, attempts are being made to facilitate biking and walking,” says Pai. “Flyovers are being taken down. But our solution is to build more roads even though studies show that only 3% of people are actually driving to work. So all these innovations we are seeing are a very small step in the right direction.”
This article was published in the Mint, dated Dec 11, 2013.

Taking Sides

History is mythology, a flaming graphic-novel narrative of good versus evil, along with tales of love and loss. Defeat, if at all, is heroic and temporary, as a historic revenge is supposedly imminent. With India and Pakistan, history is also religion.

Using a line from rock ‘n’ roll, history, thus, is partly truth and partly fiction, a walking contradiction.

But few of us, growing up, question the versions handed out by teachers, textbooks and parents; choosing to unthinkingly accept the often black and white portrayals of events long past. Bela Negi, 41, however, was made aware of the shades of grey early.

“The history textbooks we referred to in school were quite polarized in their outlook when it came to the freedom struggle,” recalls the Mumbai-based film-maker. “There were the heroes and the villain, with (Muhammad Ali) Jinnah and the British falling into the latter category. I was fortunate that my parents were not ardently pro-Congress and made me aware that both Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were not without faults and made mistakes. So I started questioning the textbook version much earlier than some of my classmates did.”

It’s a bias Negi finds prevalent even today in her son’s history curriculum. “My son has just started studying history and I find that the veneration of certain people continues.”

Sagarika Jain, 15, a class X student from St Mary’s School, Pune, agrees. “In our textbooks, Nehru is shown as an ideal figure, while Jinnah actively sought to divide India,” says Jain. “He is seen as responsible for diluting the spirit of cooperation and unity within the independence movement. When I read that, I had very strong feelings against him.”

Sentiments echoed by a 17-year old student of the Karachi-based Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, Iqra Moazaam, 17, except in her case, she says, the tilt was towards the other side. “Textbooks in Pakistan are one-sided,” says Moazaam, a first-year university student. “They portray—and this is the case even now with some college texts—that Jinnah pushed for a separate homeland because Muslims could not freely practise their religion and customs in India. It does affect your perceptions negatively.”

A shared history, yet differing interpretations; bringing them on the same page is The History Project, an initiative started by two young Pakistanis, Qasim Aslam and Ayyaz Ahmed, who are attempting to show how these versions influence perceptions among children from both sides of the border. Aslam, a Lahore-based entrepreneur, and Ahmed, who works with a publishing house in the same city, hit upon the idea in 2005 during a Seeds of Peace camp, held every year for teens from countries of conflict

The project’s first history textbook, brought out earlier this year, was put together by editors and volunteers from India and Pakistan. Compiled using books from the high school curriculum in the two countries, it is aimed at children aged 12-14.

The textbook, which has so far been presented only in workshops in schools in India and Pakistan, has received an overwhelming response. “We got a limited number of copies printed as we were unsure of the demand,” says Aslam. “But it was overwhelming. We gave out all the hard copies free of cost to schools and children.” A soft copy can be downloaded freely from .

“During our Mumbai workshops, people were amazed to read two opposing accounts of the Bengal partition,” says Mumbai-based Lavanya Julaniya, who is part of the core team. “Pakistani textbooks say Muslims in Bangladesh were happy as this gave them a majority, which meant opportunities for progress. Indian textbooks say Muslims and Hindus protested on the streets together, tying each other rakhis to announce their brotherhood.”

“My favourite part is really the end of the workshop,” says Ahmed in an email. “You can almost feel a sudden shift in the way children view the content. In the beginning, we often get replies in absolutes, a yes or no. By the end, they are curious to understand the other side. That is all that we are trying to do, highlight the other side.”

This exploration of the other side, by going beyond the textbooks, is something many teachers are attempting as well in their classrooms. “History can always be reinterpreted in different ways,” says Usha Jagannathan, who teaches history at Mumbai’s RN Podar School to class X students. “When we talk about it, we say different communities have different versions.”

It’s critical to get this message across to children early, believes Rakesha Chaturvedi, who teaches history to classes XI-XII at the NSS Hill Spring International School, Mumbai, “because of communal pressures and in some cases familial experiences. Children, especially in the subcontinent, form impressions about certain matters early. If they are exposed to different perspectives they will be more considerate towards the other side”.

Shamshad Funiturewallah, a class X history teacher at the same school, adds: “We tell them that we all carry the baggage of events that have shaped the world and that knowing this is essential to have a balanced approach. We have to train children from both sides of the border to look at various perspectives and form a judgement.”

“I have been exposed to history in a way that I am not passing judgement,” says Meher Chhatwal, 14, a class X student of JB Petit High School for Girls, one of the four schools in Mumbai where the textbook was presented in April. “Our teacher teaches the syllabus her way. When we talk about Jinnah, for instance, she shows us how the information varies across different sources.”

“The younger generation might not care as much for history, but they are still influenced by it,” believes Ahmed. “These biases surround us all the time, in the form of literature, stories, even children’s books. Once they take root, they influence us in whatever we do.”

Negi agrees. “There is a tendency towards polarization and we need to address that. When you look back at history, you find it was written again and again in terms of a need. Shivaji was chosen by Bal Gangadhar Tilak because there was a need to motivate people by using a local hero and to create a larger nationalistic sentiment. You needed to create a certain mood at a certain time. We need to relook, reassess.”

“Realistically, Jinnah will always be our hero and Nehru yours,” says Karachi-based journalist and Moazaam’s mother, Farahanaz Zahidi, 43. “We may not be able to reach 100% objectivity, but there are two sides to a story and it is time for the narrative to be revisited for the sake of our children. We need to find some other means to fuel nationalism.”

“I think she is lucky,” says Chhatwal’s mother, Savitri Chowdhury, 46, referring to the exposure her daughter is getting to these different perspectives in school. “Because while growing up, we had no idea there was another interpretation. It was only in college that one realized the different points of view. It’s terrible that we share a common history but learn it in such diametrically opposite ways.”

Realpolitik will always triumph over reality. But surely, a more rounded understanding of our past will make the Indo-Pakistan engagement better, and maybe even a safer place.

This article was written for the newspaper Livemint. To view the link visit–Taking-sides.html


Play for Freedom


In the fringes of Mumbai, a revolution is running free..

Everyone says Hasina is too young to play football. A notion this 4-year-old is determined to kick aside. Come Sunday morning, she runs down to the maidan (ground) outside her home, ball in hand, to watch neighbourhood didis (girls), many of them in their teens, play football. Girls of suburban Mumbra, who like her, grew up being told what all they could not do. Like play football.


A mindset a group of 20 girls are challenging, thanks to the initiative of an NGO Magic Bus  which uses sports to engage with children from deprived backgrounds. Through games, children are taught about key issues that impact their lives, like health, education and gender. Magic Bus runs several programs across slum communities in Mumbai, areas where access to basic amenities are poor. Mumbra, where the program was launched last year, is an especially challenging setting.


 Located on the outskirts of Mumbai, Mumbra is home to a large Muslim population; many of them families which fled here in the 90s after the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed. Many of them chose to stay on, insecurity being a major factor. The growing ghettoisation, activists say, has impacted the status of women. Levels of illiteracy are high (24%), as are early marriage rates. 28% of girls from Mumbra get married before the age of 17.


“It is difficult to reach out to adolescent girls anywhere, but in a conservative area like Mumbra, it is particularly difficult”, says Saba Khan, co-founder of a local NGO, Parcham, which works with Magic Bus in this initiative. The name Parcham is inspired by the works of Indian Urdu poet Asrar-ul Haq Majaz, also known as Majaz Lakhnawi, who saw women as crusaders, who should revolt against exploitation and injustice. Through his romantic, revolutionary verses, Majaz urged women to look at the hijaab, not as a barrier, but a flag or banner – “Tere maathe pe ye aanchal bahut hi khoob hai lekin, Tu is aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achcha tha” (The cloth covering your head is no doubt a good thing. But if you make a flag out of it, it would be good).“In Mumbra, where all women wear a hijaab, it seemed like an appropriate name. We are using what many see as a sign of repression, and turning it into a symbol of revolution”, says Khan.


The revolution comes to life when you hear these girls talk about the battles they wage to steal a few hours kicking a ball with friends.


“I tell them I have sewing classes and slip out every Sunday in my hijaab”, says Saba Parveen, 23, one of the older members of the gang. “I can never tell my brothers. They will stop me from stepping out of the house if they get to know. I do feel scared but I am determined to play”. Saba’s brothers and father do not know she plays football. But her mother and sister are a big support.


“In Mumbra, no one lets girls out of the house without a naqaab (veil)”, says Saba Parveen, 23, one of the oldest members of the group. “Initially we were very scared, but as we kept playing, our confidence grew”.


Magic Bus’ usual approach is to work with mixed groups, something they had to change in Mumbra.  “Families here would never have let their girls play with boys”, says coach Shaikh Masood Akhtar, a senior manager at Magic Bus.“ Religious and political groups dominate the area. There is a lot of discrimination here against girls, but we have to work towards finding the solution gradually”, he adds. “A lot of the girls who come here wear the hijaab. They take it off while playing. But we don’t insist either way. It is a personal choice”.


Putting the group together was just one part of the problem. Getting them to stay remains a tough challenge. “Initially we started out with forty girls. Now there are twenty”, says Khan. “We went around to different colleges and residential colonies and distributed pamphlets urging girls to enrol. Many dropped out later”. Family pressure is a big factor. Getting a ground to play was difficult too. Finally a local temple came to their rescue by granting them their ground. The girls now plan to form a club and compete against the local boys’ teams.


 “Just seeing these girls playing here is a huge thrill”, says Khan, “especially to be able to claim public spaces for girls. It is not always safe. Sometimes boys try and intimidate us but we confront them. The most important change is that parents have come to realize that it’s not enough to send the girls to school. They must get the opportunity to venture into the world outside and learn to cope”.


14-year-old Simran’s mother initially refused to let her play, but relented after watching the other girls. “I would watch these girls from my window, and I realized they were having so much fun”, says Noor Mohammed Patel. “They were making friends. They looked so confident. I wanted my daughter to look the same”.


For Neelam Deol, it’s an opportunity to let her daughter Simran mingle in a mixed group. A Sikh, she has lived in Mumbra for the past two decades. ‘I moved here after marriage and I have seen people becoming more divided over the years. While playing, these differences dissolve”.


Larger changes in mindset are now becoming apparent. “Initially the boys resisted our attempts to play in the maidan”, says Kausar Ansari, 32, the oldest in the group. Kausar started playing last year to cope with the depression after her marriage ended. She faced fierce resistance from her brother but refused to back down. “The boys in the maidan would block our way when we would play. But they saw our determination and opened up to us. Now they are very encouraging, and if someone passes comments they fight for us. I have come to realize just how much power we have within us to make a change. I feel that power within me now”.


“I remember when we had our first meeting with the girls, they told us how stifled they felt”, recalls Akhtar. “How hurt that their parents did not trust them enough to leave the house unaccompanied by a male. They want to be seen as equals and that change is becoming apparent in the community. Sports has the power to do that”.


This article was published in the newspaper Dawn. To view click on


Boys will not be boys

Inside a dimly-lit community centre in Ghatkopar, Mumbai, a group of young boys are swapping notes on, among other things, what makes a man. Many of them aren’t even old enough to shave. Their voices, though, ring loud with conviction.
“A man takes decisions at home as he is the head of the family,” pipes up a 14-year-old. “Men work outside and earn, so they don’t work at home,” says his companion. As they get comfortable, the conversation turns towards girls.
“If a boy teases a girl and she does not respond, it shows that she is a good girl. If she retorts, she is acting smart,” says a Class VII student. Another boy joins in. “If after marriage, the husband lives at the wife’s place, she becomes powerful. And if the woman moves to the man’s place after marriage, he becomes powerful. He can beat her, insult her in front of others, use her.”
The boys, residents of Amrut Nagar, a slum colony of low-income migrants, are participating in a session on gender equality, part of a youth empowerment programme started by the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA) in 2009. Since early last year, the programme, “Adolescents Gaining Ground”, has also started reaching out to young boys. “The original avatar of the initiative, called ‘Girls Gaining Ground’, was started in these areas in 2009. Initially we focused solely on adolescent girls. Over time, we realized that to empower girls, we had to involve boys as well because they are future partners,” says Garima Deveshwar Bahl, programme director, sexual and reproductive health, SNEHA. “These girls were telling us about issues like eve-teasing and we were not talking to the boys at all.”
At around 243 million, India is home to the largest number of adolescents in the world, says Unicef’sProgress for Children: A Report Card On Adolescents, released in 2012. A group that, according to a 2008 study Youth in India: Situations and Needs Study by non-profit organization Population Council, makes up 30% of India’s population. The Unicef report highlights the critical need to invest in adolescents. In India, however, government programmes have usually targeted girls. Not enough, say experts, who add there is an urgent need for large-scale interventions among adolescent boys. They point to the recent incidents of rape that have generated huge outrage. In both cases, that of the assault on a young student in Delhi in December and the more recent one on a Mumbai journalist, some of the accused are between 16-24 years; coming from a milieu much like Amrut Nagar.
“In India, the whole focus of adolescent programmes has been on early marriage and early pregnancy, which targeted girls,” says Neha Madiwala, founder trustee of Sahyog Chetak, a non-governmental organization (NGO), which works for the empowerment of adolescent girls. “We haven’t found a good methodology to address boys. The usual approach to hold talks tends to work better with girls because they are looking for opportunities to get out of the house. Boys have more social freedom.”
SNEHA uses a mix of interventions, like group meetings, vocational training and life-skills education. Communicating these messages are facilitators drawn from the community. Although boys and girls are placed in separate groups, reaching out is a challenge.
“Parents never speak to girls or boys about puberty or sexuality,” says Sanjeevani Borude, 39, peer coordinator in Amrut Nagar. “One mother stopped sending her daughter when we held a session on puberty. We explained to the mother that her daughter has questions and she may get the answers the wrong way or from the wrong source. It is the same with boys. Parents don’t have a problem if their sons watch porn at a video parlour but when we explain it in the context of health, they get upset. It takes a while but eventually they listen.”
“Earlier I would never listen to anything my mother said,” says Rishikesh Shankar Karale, 15, who enrolled in the programme last year. He was reluctant at first because many of his friends would mock him. Now he regularly attends with his younger brother. “I have come to understand how hard my mother works at home. I help her now.”
An impact report, done six months after the intervention started, is showing encouraging results, especially when it comes to health matters like puberty and HIV; not so much when it comes to changing gender attitudes and perceptions. Clearly that will take longer. Over 70% of boys and girls agreed that both girls and boys are entitled to equal freedom; nearly a 20% improvement. When it comes to educating girls and sexual harassment, however, the improvement reported is not as significant. “What this shows is that we need to focus on gender very strongly,” says Bahl.
Pranita Acharya, gender, poverty and HIV/AIDS specialist, International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), agrees. In 2008, ICRW, along with CORO (Committee of Resource Organizations) for Literacy and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, initiated the Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) programme in Mumbai, which, specifically addresses gender-related issues. The initiative is in place in 45 municipal schools and reaches out to over 8,000 children between 12-14 years from low-income groups.
Through role playing, comic strips and interactive activities, students are encouraged to rethink social norms and question gender biases. Led by facilitators, children discuss what makes for healthy relationships. “Classroom discussions help students think about and question social norms. Facilitators encourage them to challenge stereotypical ideas about men and women,” says Acharya.
At the start of the GEMS programme in 2008, little over 20% of boys and girls supported gender equality. A year later, this grew to 53% of girls and 39% of the boys. There was greater support for girls pursuing higher education and marrying later and of boys helping in household work. The initiative is now being scaled up by the Maharashtra government.
“Evidence shows that reaching out to boys, even as early as of 8-10 years, is critical,” says Rema Nanda, founder, NGO Jagruti Trust, which conducts youth leadership programmes in rural Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. “This is what we are seeing in different parts of the world. And you have to reiterate the message over and over again to get men to change their behaviour.”
The big picture, Nanda goes on to add, will not change unless violence against women ceases to be an individual problem. “In most of the successful interventions in South Africa and Latin America, men and women have agreed violence against women is a community’s problem. Unless that happens here, we cannot progress”.

Internet Infidelity

Six months into her marriage, this Delhi-based therapist started getting suspicious about the unduly long hours her husband spent on the Internet. “He was a software programmer, so at first it seemed normal,” she recalls. “Then I began to notice that he would be on the computer in the early morning hours when I was asleep, or act shifty if I went up to him while he was on the laptop.”
It turned out her husband was into sex-ting, or conducting intimate conversations with women online. “I stumbled on to chats he had with various women, all of them sexually explicit in nature. Some of them had taken place even while we were dating. I felt utterly hurt and humiliated,” says this 40-year-old who has since remarried. “But he simply didn’t see my point of view. His argument was that since it was not a physical relationship, he was not being unfaithful and he wouldn’t stop.”
It is an excuse marriage therapists say they hear all too often. And they are hearing it plenty of late.
“About five years back, I would meet some two to three couples in a month who would meet me with complaints that their partners were in an online relationship. Now I see about 10-15 in the same period,” says Mumbai-based clinical psychologistSeema Hingorrany. “Mostly those involved in such behaviour—and women are as much a part—don’t think they are being unfaithful. They don’t see it as emotional infidelity; the tremendous hurt and a sense of betrayal felt.”
You can be what you want on the World Wide Web; the anonymity leads to an addiction that can be hard to shake off. New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, caught in a sexting scandal for the second time in two years (2011 and July 2013), is a case in point.
A common mode for entering into such relationships is Facebook (FB). In fact, emails and messages over Facebook are increasingly being cited in many divorce petitions. “I have used FB uploads of people displaying their status or pictures and taken orders from the court,” says Mumbai-based advocate Amit Karkhanis, senior partner, Kay Legal. “What you do on FB is inadmissible as evidence, but it is good enough to prove a point,” says Karkhanis. In the UK, Karkhanis adds, family courts view online relationships as infidelity. “People may think they are in the clear because they are not meeting the other person, but hooking up with someone online is seen as an intention to cheat in the eyes of the law.”
In India, there are few cases of online fidelity being cited as sole grounds for divorce. “But it is becoming an important factor,” says lawyer Kranti Sathe, who has been practising for over 20 years in the Mumbai family court. “When online communication starts affecting family life, leading to neglect of the spouse and children, it is then cited as causing acute mental agony for the partner.”
A 2013 study by the Texas Tech University, US, says online acts of infidelity are as painful as those committed in person. The study, which used data from, a Facebook page where jilted lovers share their stories, points out that “people have the ability to be more vulnerable online, which facilitates a greater emotional response which can be just as devastating, if not more, than an offline response”.
Another widely quoted 2003 University of Florida study based on interviews with 86 married men and women who were into online relationships found that about a third of the participants went on to meet the person with whom they made contact.
While there is no India-based study, counsellors say the findings reflect their experiences on the ground. “There is sadness, hopelessness, rage and a feeling of not being good enough. Just because the other person does not have a name or face does not make it any less painful,” says Mumbai-based counsellor Harish Shetty, visiting psychiatrist, Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital.
“It definitely affects the emotional connect,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani. “No one feels it is just a minor thing. There is a sense of comparison and a feeling of inadequacy felt”.
The University of Florida study also found an “escalating quality” to these contacts, with the anonymity encouraging participants to share more about themselves with online partners than they do with their spouses. In most cases what starts off as a friendly exchange, progresses to a desire for a sexual relationship.
“The usual explanation is that it began accidentally during a spell of boredom and frustration,” says Dr Shetty. “It becomes a way of building emotional intimacy which is lacking in today’s world where couples spend long hours working.”
“Two years ago, during my sister-in-law’s wedding, I was regularly chatting with someone I met up with on Facebook,” says a 35-year-old Baroda-based stockbroker, who did not want to be named. “As the older brother-in-law, I was expected to participate in the functions. But I would make excuses and stay away.” During one such function, he made a work-related excuse and got caught sex-chatting at home. His wife left him and it took months of counselling before matters were resolved. “I liked the anonymity of it. I felt I could say things to her that my wife might not like to hear,” he recalls. “I felt a deep connection.”
“You can act out your fantasies,” says Dr Mirchandani. “You can imbue that person with the qualities and ideals you are looking for and take on any persona you want.” Adds Hingorrany: “One man told me that the woman he was involved with online made him feel so good that he started despising his wife.”
Counselling cases of online infidelity can be a long drawn-out affair. “It can be like treating an addict,” says Dr Mirchandani. “Many of them are in denial and many don’t want to change their behaviour. Sometimes there are pre-existing issues which need to be looked into.”
“On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog,” goes the famous New Yorker cartoon. In the darkness of the world wide wilderness, there is a swampy netherworld where you can get down and dirty without difficulty or disease. You could get a second life, you could buy a penis. But what you won’t get is heart.

This article also appeared  in the Mint. To view click on

Google Q&A on Bariatric Surgery with Dr Ramen Goel

According to a recent study, 70% of India’s urban population falls in the overweight or obese category. A figure that experts say is likely to rise exponentially, perhaps by as much as 15% a year.A growing number of are opting to go under the knife to avoid obesity-related health problems.

 A recent study by Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that over 87% of bariatric or weight loss surgeries in India have been conducted on people below the age of 50 years. An estimated 10,000 bariatric surgeries are performed in India every year.

 In bariatric surgery, the weight loss is achieved either, by reducing the size of the stomach with an implanted medical device called gastric banding; removing a portion of the stomach -sleeve gastrectomy; or by  re-routing the small intestines to a small stomach pouch – gastric bypass.The surgery by itself cuts off the fat but keeping it off for good requires permanent lifestyle changes.

 Given that many are eager for a quick fix solution to their weight issues, a number of unscrupulous clinics offering surgery, packaged in attractive deals, have come up around the country.

 But is bariatric surgery really the solution to all your weight problems? What are some of the questions people should be asking when they decide to opt for this method? Answering these queries will be prominent bariatric surgeon Dr Ramen Goel who will be on a Google Hangout session moderated by me on August 16 from 1 PM-1.30 PM.  

 Log on to: and type “Dr.Ramen Goel clarifies weight loss surgery”.