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 Based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai, and adapted for the screen by late poet Kaifi Azmi and scriptwriter Shama Zaidi, it was the first Hindi film to be made on the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

Commuters in India turn to apps to reduce travel woes

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.