Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stories from the dream factory

There’s little that can top a well-told story, especially if it is your own story.
The five stories I heard last Sunday were in a class of their own. They took me on long journeys across time, space and the recesses of the human mind. They were deeply moving stories of determination, passion and hope.
Above all, they were personal stories told by women and men who have fought the odds just to have the freedom to be themselves and chase their dreams.
So there I was at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs near Trivandrum. Every year, the institute — which is a project of Braille without Borders — runs a programme to mould visionaries and social change makers. Those who attend the programme come from across the world, from different backgrounds and with different physical capabilities. What unites them though is the determination to climb every mountain in pursuit of their dream.
Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg, the founders of the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs (IISE), believe that it is a ‘dream factory’ that creates leaders who will drive social change. So towards the very end of each year’s training programme, every participant gets to make a ‘dream speech’ — a presentation on the social venture they plan to run after graduating.
This year, 16 change makers are graduating from the institute, and their stories and dreams are as diverse as they are. There’s Marguerite, a single mother who overcame low self-esteem, got herself a degree in her mid-30s, turned around a business and, more recently, battled the loss of her eyesight. Phoenix-like, she has risen from each adversity, and now intends to create a learning hub in Baltimore to empower African American women.
Then there’s Marcus who saw his family’s fortunes turn to dust and his many ‘friends’ disappear. So what did the ever-smiling Marcus do? He went out and found himself a dream — to start a creative design-based programme to help Nigeria’s marginalised youth build an identity for themselves.
Being partially sighted has worked to her advantage, says Tahreer from Palestine. For it has enabled her to walk down paths that are open to very few women from Hebron. And now, she wants to help other women find ways in which they too can shape their lives. To begin with, she dreams of opening Hebron’s first Internet cafĂ© for women, which will also be a safe space for Palestinian women to meet, learn and empower themselves.
Raja’s story is one of spunk; of not letting his physical challenges get the better of him. It’s also a story of compassion for people who fall through society’s cracks. While talking to prisoners in the Pondicherry jail as part of his graduate research, Raja realised that their children often get a very bad deal. So his new mission is to set up centres that will take care of the young children of those who are incarcerated in India’s prisons.
And then there’s Nelson, who has seen death, torture and a million other horrors brush past him during Liberia’s long civil war. Now that peace has come, he wants to empower Liberia’s disadvantaged, especially those with disabilities, through a community radio station.
Beyond the adversity, passion and grit that runs through these stories is the tenet that hope endures. And that redemption is only a thought away.
PS: All 15 ‘dream speeches’ are currently up here and will also be available soon on the IISE website I understand.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Pandit phenomenon

I’m still reeling from an encounter with Santhosh Pandit. Fortunately, I’ve come away relatively unscathed since it was a virtual encounter — he was giving an interview on television last night.
But the interview, supplemented by some of his videos on YouTube, has left me almost speechless. Which, I’m told, is one of two customary reactions to Pandit, Kerala’s newest cultural icon. The other response to Pandit and his work, I gather, is to let loose a stream of invective broken by bouts of hysterical laughter. 
Who is this guy, I wondered when I saw him in action on television. And the more I saw of him, the more intrigued I was. His web site and Google threw up some answers, but his videos on YouTube were a revelation.
In a line, Pandit is a Malayalam filmmaker. And one who has donned several hats in his recently released debut film Krishnanum Radhayum. A more complex descriptor though, is that Pandit is a wave that’s sweeping across Kerala. 
From what I’ve heard, his film is so appalling that appalling doesn’t quite cover it. And if the videos on YouTube are anything to go by, execrable would be a very generous description of the film. His acting sucks, his songs suck despite the double entendre, the dialogues suck — everything about the film sucks.
Yet, people in Kerala are forking out money to see Krishnanum Radhayum.
A friend who sat through the two-and-a-half-hour film said it is so bad that you want to commit hara-kiri. Audiences were either in splits or busy abusing Pandit in Malayalam, he added. Still, people continue to go for the film and Santhosh Pandit is apparently one of the top searches on Google.
So what is it about this film and its creator that mesmerises? Is it his self-deprecatory, permanently goofy expression and facial contortions? Is it his ability to create an opportunity for us to vent? Do we identify with his ‘ordinary guy living out a fantasy’ story? Or have our standards fallen so much that we, in some strange way, find him and his work entertaining?
The answer, I suspect, is a combination of all these. But it is also something more complex, a reflection in some ways of the spirit of the times.
What intrigues me more, though, is what drives Pandit. Reading between the lines of the interview I saw on television and a couple on YouTube, it seems he knows just how awful his work is. So is he, through all the clowning around, taking carefully aimed pot shots at the holier-than-thou Malayalam film industry and cultural establishment? Or is he a canny businessman, who has discovered a new path to fame and riches? Or is he just a supremely confident chap living out his celluloid dreams?
I have no idea. What I do know though is that Santhosh Pandit is having a blast with his 15 minutes of fame. Which is, I guess, a great way to live.

Behind the scenes

Back stories are always instructive. And sometimes entertaining. So it is a delight to read one that is both instructive and entertaining.
For a behind the scenes look at what went into the stories in Desh, dancer/choreographer Akram Khan’s new production, go here, here and here. These back stories, of a sort, have been written by Karthika Nair, a poet, writer and dance producer. Oh, and in the interests of full disclosure, Karthika is a very good friend.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bus bay

Understanding the logic that underpins infrastructure projects in India is often a bit like trying to solve a puzzle. And in Kerala it is even more so.
The City Road Improvement Project — better known by the rather inapt acronym CRIP — in Trivandrum is one of those infrastructure projects that sometimes befuddle. In theory, the project is intended to transform 42-odd kilometres of Trivandrum’s roads into world-class thoroughfares. In practice, some road surfaces have improved, but there have also been inexplicable screw-ups.
Consider the picture above. It is of a ‘bus bay’ about 100 metres from a very busy junction on the city’s arterial MG Road. Bus bays are useful, but the thinking that has gone into designing this one seems iffy.
As the picture shows, one bus has stopped outside the bay, almost in the middle of the road, and the other has stopped ahead of the mouth of the bay. 
Over the course of a morning last week, I found that about 50 per cent of the buses that went past stopped outside the bay. And in the process blocked the road and created traffic snarls. This, I agree, is a problem of enforcement — the police needs to ensure that every bus uses the bay. But this is a route with a high volume of bus traffic and most buses stop at this point. So if every bus that passes by uses the bay — that can accommodate about two-and-a-half buses at a time — there would probably still be a traffic jam during the peak hours. This implies that the bus bay is simply too small to cater to peak hour traffic; which, to me, seems to be a design flaw. 
Which brings me to the next inexplicable aspect of the bus bay’s design. The entrance to the bay is about a foot or two away from the exit from an important government office complex. As a result, every vehicle that comes out of the office complex ends up blocking the mouth of the bus bay, at least for a second or two, laying the ground for a series of micro traffic snarls through the day as the picture above and the one below show. 
Given the constraints of this stretch of road, this is perhaps the only design possible for the bus bay. But that begs the question — Why have a bus bay at all, especially if it creates more problems than it solves?
That, perhaps, is a riddle that may never be solved.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Kerala gender conundrum

Quality of life means different things to different people. A thread that runs through this thought-provoking blog post by Viju Balanarayanan, a former colleague.
The overarching theme of Viju’s post, though, is that cities like Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi — and Kerala as a whole — are not very friendly and safe places for women. In other words, Kerala may score high on the ‘liveability’ index based on parameters like water, sanitation, shelter and literacy, but it sucks if you consider parameters such as the freedom that women enjoy. As he writes:
But if you are woman, you are at your own risk if you venture out after twilight. If you are a single, widowed or divorced woman staying alone, the city becomes a preying monster. Even without your knowledge, stories begin to circulate (especially if you smoke and drink) that you are ‘available.’”
While there are exceptions, much of what Viju says is true. The levels of gender disparity in modern Kerala are stark; as they are in many other parts of the country.
What puzzles me though is how often people are surprised at the gender disparity that exists in Kerala. And this, perhaps, has much to do with two decoys — Kerala’s high literacy and heritage of a matrilineal society.
Yes, it is true that Kerala enjoys almost 100 per cent literacy. But literacy does not necessarily lead to greater gender sensitivity and equality between the sexes.
And while some communities in Kerala, such as the Nairs, were (and are) matrilineal, they never were matriarchal. And that makes all the difference.
Traditionally, descent and inheritance in these communities was through the women, but power was generally in the hands of the eldest male — the karnavar — be it a brother or uncle. There may have been some families with a matriarch or two, but this was probably the exception rather than the rule.
So take away high literacy and perceptions of a matriarchal society and Kerala becomes pretty much like any other part of India. More educated, perhaps, and with better healthcare, but with many of the gender inequalities that exist in other parts of the country. Consider, for instance, the films and television serials that literate Kerala’s entertainment machine now churns out. How many of them feature strong, independent female characters, let alone strong, independent female characters in a lead role? And the few strong-ish female characters that appear are mostly the ‘bad’ ones who either meet a sorry end or see the ‘error’ of their ways. Yet, these films and television serials are lapped up by Kerala’s literate audiences.
None of this, however, explains why it isn’t possible to have a meaningful, equitable equation between women and men in Kerala and elsewhere. Finding an answer to that might just help make Kerala a truly liveable place for all people.