Show don’t tell: Bajirao Mastani

I’ve always found cinema a fascinating world. Why is the protagonist framed by pillars? Would we know one of the characters is walking into trouble if no ominous music was playing in the background? Why does this scene have a lot of reds?

At J-School, we had the option to learn cinema analysis and interpretation. I had opted for other electives, and had given this as my last preference. As luck would have it, I was assigned this elective thanks to a mystifying algorithm that the management used.

I was disappointed when I got the news, but I couldn’t help but feel happy that THE Baradwaj Rangan was going to be taking these classes. Soon enough, I realised that this was one of the best things to happen at ACJ for me. My latent curiosity found an outlet, and it was pure joy analysing movies with him (side note: he is a very kind and non-judgemental teacher).

So here I am, trying to apply what I learnt through the Talking Cinema elective.

In this post, I attempt to interpret the visual storytelling that permeates Bajirao Mastani, a 2015 Hindi film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Kashibai’s character progression

Bajirao marries Kashi as dictated by tradition. She is emotionally expressive, religious, and wears her heart on her sleeve.

She is introduced with lamps around her – symbolic of her passionate nature.

She wears colours that indicate passion too: reds, yellows, orange, maroon, etc. Even her eyes are red-rimmed.

As the film progresses, she comes to represent Bajirao’s duties as a Peshwa- fighting battles, within and outside. She remains the dutiful wife, sticking to rigid rules: We see her in square/rectangular spaces, which in Indian context represents the masculine, which is inflexible, conscientious, and rule-adhering.

She is so duty conscious that she welcomes Mastani with the traditional aarti, invites her to participate in the palace’s celebrations, and takes care of Bajirao till his death. The descent of her life from light to darkness is also shown visually – her scenes are placed in well-lit spaces, vibrant interiors, she wears vibrant colours. As she comes to terms with Bajirao belonging to Mastani more than to her, she is seen in progressively dark spaces and wears cool tones. Sample: the scene where she asks Bajirao to never step into her quarters again, and starts blowing out the lamps; the next being her informing Bajirao she’s pregnant with his child, in a gloomy garden- she wears blue, her hair is loose, there are very few lamps.

Towards the end of the movie, she wears the palest of colours and whites too- symbolic of her soul having detached from her emotions. Her face is almost always placid, rarely expressing any emotion, her eyes seldom shed tears. Priyanka is hands down the best thing about this movie.

Mastani’s character progression

Mastani is portrayed as a calm person who never loses her composure – even when expressing intense emotions. A lot of her scenes feature placid water. When she’s happy, when her heart’s aflutter, we see her amidst fountains.

She wears the most subtle shades of colours, her home is set amidst a still lake.

When she is experiencing intense emotions, they’re denoted by intense colours – case in point – the Mohe Rang Do Lal song sequence: she wears muted colours, but she bears her palm as she looks at Bajirao and we see red.

When she is sequestered in a run-down palace by Bajirao’s mom, everything around her is black- you can almost feel the heaviness.

Her relationship with Bajirao alludes to the Krishna-gopika equation – she is moved to tears by her love for him – a common occurrence in poems by Krishna devotees on their divine experiences. Even Mohe Rang Do Laal is a song sung to Krishna.

As with the mythical god’s story, the Bajirao-Mastani relationship doesn’t take into account ethics. She leaves everything for him, and is willing to go to great lengths to be with him, yet she doesn’t mind that Kashi will be the one who will be acknowledged as the wife; she understands Kashi’s hurt and doesn’t serve platitudes. The lack of regret on the couple’s part about hurting Kashi and other people, is representative of the fluid morality their relationship shows – and is denoted by circles – the feminine principle – free-flowing, flexible.

As the movie progresses, we see Mastani is deep reds and browns, her spaces are more fire than water.

That is, where Kashi moves into a non-attached space in her relationship with Bajirao, we see Mastani losing her cool, needing to assert her love, her relationship, her beliefs.

The ethereal Deepika is the apt pick: her fluid motions, minimal makeup, soft voice and subtle expressions also reflecting her – water – the feminine.


The BBS: Women in Sangam Literature

This post is a part of a series that looks at how women are perceived and portrayed in Tamil literature, films, pop culture and thereby, in Tamil country

The literary works examined in this section are thought of as model literature for the ideal Tamil society. We delve into the glorious Sangam period literature that has been used to substantiate the egalitarian character of ancient Dravidian society. Considered to be rich in ethical codes and moral standards, their undeniably misogynistic streak jumps out at anyone who reads them (except maybe those blind to their privilege). Public intellectuals of Tamil society seem to have ignored, or worse, not considered the gender discrimination that fills these works.
For this section I’ve relied on Balu S’s work available on Gender Awareness Promoters; he has studied Sangam era literature from a gender perspective.

Here is what he had to say when I asked him about gender roles in Sangam literature:

I have heard people contending that women were considered or treated equally in Sangam period (period disputed but roughly between the years c. 350 BCE to 300 CE) and I wondered what this equality meant. The arguments for ‘women were treated as equal in Sangam’ would be in the lines of, women were educated, some women chose their partners, women learnt and performed arts and they were poets etc. However compared to the privileges enjoyed by the men, as could be derived from the literature, the status of women was significantly less. They were educated but only at home, whereas men went out for education and women could perform art only in the confines of their homes mostly.

He goes on to quote examples from Sangam literature. He talks about Tholkappiyam, considered the master guide for Sanga Ilakkiyam (Sangam literature). Tholkappiyam is divided into three books—Ezhuthadhikaram (formation of words), Solladhikaram (syntax), Poruladhikaram (conveying thoughts) (wikipedia.org). In his article, Balu talks about the third, Poruladhikaram, which defines “how a man and a woman should be and should be portrayed” in literary works.
He goes on to quote from the work, which talks about what the characteristics of the ideal woman (heroine of a story) should be:

Acchamum naanum madanum mundhurudhal
Nicchamum penbarkku uriya enbar

Kalaviyal 96, Tholkappiyam

Timidity, bashfulness, and credulity
Are the ruling traits in Woman (heroine)

Accham means timidity, madam means modesty, and naanam means bashfulness. Balu says that here madam also denotes that though the heroine of the story is knowledgeable, she will not display it. This is a clear indication, then, of the insecurity felt by men who feel threatened by women who surpass them intellectually.

The forthcoming section is mostly excerpts from Sangam literature with translations. They’re from Balu’s collection; I’ve tweaked the translation a bit to suit my needs. I’ve added them as support for my conclusion that the Sangam era was as patriarchal and misogynistic as present day Tamil Nadu. I’ve linked the sources so if you want to start a discussion on this post, please do your research.

Serivum, niraivum, semmaiyum, seppum,
Arivum, arumaiyum penpaalaana.

Poruliyal 206, Tholkappiyam

Temperance, fullness of bearing, uprightness,
Facility of the tongue, discrimination and discernment 
Are traits marked in women

Uyirinum sirandhandru naane: naaninu
Seyir theer kaatchik karpuch chirandhandru; yenath
Thollor kilavi pulliya nenjamodu
Kaamak kizhavan ulvazhip padinum,
Tha il nal mozhi kizhavi kilappinum,
Aavagai piravum thondruman porule

Kalaviyal 111, Tholkappiyam

As the heroine goes by herself
Seeking the hero she has fallen in love with
Or as she says such words
As are free from willfulness and guile,
Armed she is 
With the saying of the ancestors:
“Bashfulness is of greater worth than life itself,
And chastity unsullied stands superior to bashfulness”
And such things as lofty as these
Constitute the thematic modes of Akam love proper

Clearly, chastity and bashfulness were integral to the ideal heroine; according to Balu the claim that these are the words of ancestors was “probably attempts to give a stamp of credibility and authority to the prescribed qualities of a woman”.

Here’s another example:

Thar pugazh kilavi kizhavan mun kilaththal
Yeth thirathaanum kizhaththikku illai-
Murpada vaguththa irandu alangadaiye

Karpiyal 178, Tholkappiyam

The heroine,
Whatever be the circumstances,
Is not given to self-praise
In the presence of the hero
Save the two context aforesaid

Let’s look at what Tholkappiyam says are the ideal characteristics of the man, the hero of the story:

Perumaiyum uranum aadoomaena

Kalaviyal 95, Tholkappiyam

Nobility of bearing and fortitude
Marks the man (hero)

While the main text is brief, the commentary, or Urai, list more qualities, says Balu: education, valour, charity, cooperation, impartiality, fearlessness, brilliance, rigidity, and bravery, to name a few.
This is proof, that “a woman was invested with patriarchal notions of ideal attributes and so was the man”.

Tholkappiyam also specifies that self-praise by the hero is a good thing:

Kizhavi munnaarth thar pugazh kilavi
Kizhavon vinaivayin uriya yenba

Karpiyal 179, Tholkappiyam

Self-praise marks the hero’s utterance
In the presence of the heroine
As he sets out on his mission
Parting from her (the heroine)

TL;DR: Self-praise is acceptable if you are a man/you’re the hero. In fact, it was a norm (still is?).

Tholkappiyam also talks about who among them (hero and heroine) has to be superior:

Ondrae vaerae endru iru paalvayin
Ondri uyarndha paaladhu aanaiyin
Oththa kizhavanum kizhathiyum kaanba
Mikkon aayinum, kadi varai indrae

Kalaviyal 90, Tholkappiyam

When a woman and man are in love, and the man turns out to have qualities that are superior to that of the woman, then it does not matter if he is of equal stature.

It was of utmost importance then, that the hero not be portrayed as inferior to the heroine.

The next time I find myself needing to explain fragile masculinity, I’m going to quote this.

Let’s move on and see how specific traits were expected to manifest in man (hero) and woman (heroine) in Sangam literature: first up, valour.

In Sangam poetry, both women and men are praised for their valour and courage, but there is a marked difference. The men are praised for going into battle, fighting fearlessly, and dying rather than running away from the battlefield. As for the women, their bravado and courage are defined in relation to the men in their lives: they are deemed courageous if they face the death of their husband or son in an uncomplaining manner and felt proud about it.

Narambu ezhundhu ulari niramba men thol
Mulari marungin, mudhiyol siruvan
Padai azhindhu, maarinan endru palar koora
“Mandu amarkku udaindhanan aayin, unda yen
Mulai aruththiduven, yaan” yenach chinayee,
Konda vaalodu padu pinam peyara,
Sengalam thuzhavuvol, sidhaindhu vaeru aagiya
Padu magan kidakkai kaanoo
Eendra gnandrilum peridhu uvandhanalae!

Kaakkai Paadiniyar Nachellaiyar, Purananooru 278

When she heard many say,
“The son of that old woman,
Her veins showing, dried, delicate arms with
Loose skin, and shrunk stomach like lotus leaves,
Showed his back and ran from ferocious battle”,
She was enraged and said, “I will cut off 
These breasts that fed him, if that is true”,
And turned over every body lying in the blood-soaked battlefield
She finally found her son
Who was chopped to pieces,
And she felt happier than she did
When she gave birth to him!

This also serves as an indication of the ideal woman was expected to live her life serving male interests.

While the ideal way for women to display courage and valour were thus defined by the Tholkappiyam, there are problematic Sangam love poems that follow the done-to-death trope of the hero harassing, or stalking, or coercing the heroine into accepting him or consenting to a sexual encounter. In some poems, the woman is treated as an object, and any attention showered on her by her man is lapped up, and seen as the man being gracious.

Pooppin purappaadu eer-aaru naalum
Neeththu agandru uraiyaar yenmanaar pulavar-
Paraththaiyin pirindha kaalaiyaana

Karpiyal 185, Tholkappiyam

The literate men say,
While there occasions his separation (from the heroine)
In pursuit of harlots
The hero does not keep off from the heroine
During the twelve days
Since the day of her menstruation

Here the poem takes on a glorifying tone, while describing how the hero does not keep away from the heroine during her fertile period in spite of concurrently pursuing sexual relationships with other women. This is seen as a mark of goodness on the part of the hero, and seen as a favour done by the hero to the heroine. Compare this with how chastity was defined as more important than life itself for women (Kaliviyal 111, Tholkappiyam, mentioned earlier in this chapter). Men, in stark contrast, were allowed to court and have sexual relationships with multiple women, before and after marriage.

Going by the poems in Akanaanooru, eloping was accepted, as far as the woman married the man she eloped with. Thus, the virtuous woman was sexually exclusive. Further, a woman’s karpu (chasitity), as defined in Tholkappiyam, was taught to her by her husband (Karpiyal 152, Tholkappiyam).

As for expressing her feelings to the man she is interested in, the woman could do so only be suggestive because of her femininity dictates it (a.k.a acham, madam).

Kaamath thinaiyin kan nindru varuoom
Naanum madanum penmaiya aagalin
Kurippinum idaththinum alladhu, vaetkai
Nerippada vaaraa, avalvayinaana

Kalaviyal 106, Tholkappiyam

Bashfulness and credulity
Being ingrained in feminine nature
The passion of love of the heroine
Will find expression
Through suggestive modes
And through the context of the situation
And not through explicit utterance

Here is yet another example of how the woman is expected to to resort to non-verbal responses, as against being plain expressive:

Sol edhir mozhidhal arumaithu agalin
Alla kootrumozhi avalavayinaana

Kalaviyal 108, Tholkappiyam

Rare as it is
In the feminine nature of the heroine
To respond in verbal utterance
To the hero’s overtures of love
She is wont to non-verbal suggestive responses

Even if the wife was distressed by her husband’s dalliances with other women, she could not express it directly. She can express her hurt through indirect means: for instance, her friend would talk to him about it (Nachinarkiniyar, Kalaviyal 158, Tholkappiyam).

Coming back to the trope of how a woman falls in love with the man in spite of coercion and harassment, here is a popular poem that embodies it:

Sudarththodee! Kaelaai! Theruvil naam aadum
Manar chittril kaalin sidhaiya, adaichiya
Kodhai parindhu, vari pandhu kondu odi
No thakka seyyum siru, patti, mael oar naal,
Annaiyum yaanum irundhema,
“Illire! Unnu neer vaettaen” yena vandharkku, annai,
“Adar por sirakaththaal vaakki, sudarizhaai!
Unnu neer ootti va” yendraal: yena yaanum
Thannai ariyaadhu sendraen: matru yennai
Valai munkai patri naliya, therumandhittu,
“Annaai! Ivanoruvan seidhadhu kaan” yendraena,
Annai alarip padardhara, thannai yaan,
“Unnu neer vikkinaan” yendraena, annaiyum
Thannai purambu azhiththu neeva, mattru yennaik
Kadaikkannaal kolvaan pol nokki, nagaik koottam
Seidhaan, ak kalvan magan

Kalithogai 51

Listen my friend who wears bright bangles!
That wild brat
Who used to kick our little sand houses
With his leg,
Pull flower strands from our hair,
And yank the striped ball from us
Causing us agony,
Came one day when my mother and I were home.
“Oh, people of this house,
Please give me some water to drink,” he said.
Mother said to me, “Pour water in the thick gold vessel,
And give it to him to drink, my bright-jewelled daughter.”
And so I went unwittingly,
He seized my bangled arm and pressed it, 
Shocking me.
“Mother, see what he did,” I shouted.
My mother, distressed, came running with a shriek,
“He had hiccups while drinking water”.
Mother stroked his back gently,
And asked him to drink slowly.
He looked at me from the corner of his eyes, giving me loaded looks,
And smiled a lot, that thief!

“It is constructed as a romantic situation but the subtext is clearly misogynistic: the boy harasses girls while young and while grown up he has the audacity to grab her hand, smug with the notion that she would not put him in trouble. True to word the woman recounts the incident to her friend as if he was mischievous and naughty now with the added observation of him giving her ‘killer looks.’ There was obviously no concept of sexual harassment or sexual consent that either sexes had to  be aware about”, writes Balu.

Another example, where male entitlement is more explicit (Kabilar, Kalithokai 62):

Yeiyekthu oththan, naan ilan thannodu
Maevaem yenbaarayum maevinan kaippatrum

Hey, boy, have you no shame?
You’re trying to unite with me
By gripping my hand, even if i don’t want to

Maevinum, maevakkadaiyum, akthu ellam
Nee aridhi, yaan akthu arikallaen; poo amandra
Mel inar sellak kodi annaai! Ninnai yaan
Pul inidhu aagalin, pullinen yella!

Girl, you know consent and lack of it,
I am not aware of all that;
You are like a delicate vine with flowers
I desired your sweet embrace
And embraced you.

Thamakku inidhu yendru, validhin pirarku inna
Seivadhu nandru aamo matru?

Just because it is sweet for you,
Is it right to forcibly cause distress to others?

Sudar thodee! Potraai kalai, nin mudhukkuraimai; potrik kael!
Vaettarku inidhu aayin alladhu, neerkku inidhu yendru
Unbavo, neer unbavar?
Seivadhu arikallaen, yaadhu seivenkolo
Ai vaai aravin idaipattu, nai vaaraa?

Bright-bangled one! Stop analysing it.
Use your intellect. Listen,
Thirsty people drink water because they find it sweet, 
Not because the water finds itself sweet.
I do not know what to do.
Ancient wisdom says it is okay
To take away a girl
To save her from the five-headed snake

Aranum adhu kandatraayin, thiran indri,
Koorum sol kaelaan, nalidharum; pandunaam
Vaeru allam yenbadhu ondru undaal; avanodu
Maaru undo, nenje! Namakku?

He doesn’t listen to me,
He is wasting away;
If that is wisdom, maybe
We weren’t strangers in the past;
Maybe I was united with him.
Is there any opposition to that thought, my heart?

The man justifies, in fact normalises his disregard for her consent, by drawing the parallel of a thirsty person’s need for water. The woman, too, gives in, concluding that if this were wisdom, then maybe she was wrong about her consent being important at all, and that they were united in the past.

Apart from steamrolling and gaslighting, there was always blackmailing:

Maa yena madalum oorupa; poo yenak
Kuvimugizh yerukkang kanniyum soodupa;
Marukin aarkkavum padupa;
Piridhum aagupa-kaamam kaazhkkoline

Pereyil Muruvalar, Kurunthokai 17

If love ripens, one will
Wear an erukkam garland
With pointed buds,
Ride on a palmyra frond horse,
Suffer ridicule on the streets,
And even more.

This practice, “madalerudhal”, appears to be “a kind of blackmailing technique intended to intimidate the woman”, says Balu. He notes that women were not allowed the liberty to do the same, quoting from Tholkappiyam:

Yeththinai marunginum, magadoo madalmael
Porpudai nerimai inmaiyaana

Akathinaiyial 38, Tholkappiyam

Translation (V Murugan):
No strand of akam love behaviour
Does enjoin on the heroine
To ride the horse of palmyra stems,
As it goes contrary to the norms
Of feminine propriety.

Clearly, it was considered unfeminine for a woman to be audacious, while the man had all the freedom to be what he wanted to be. While this is a rule for writing characters for literary work, it can be taken as an indication about what was accepted by society at large.

Further, according to the guidelines laid down in the Tholkappiyam, the woman could have the upper hand in the relationship during a lover’s tiff, where the man is submissive if only to placate her. In another set of verses, the Tholkappiyam establishes that a man privileges a woman by marrying her (Credit: Balu).

Widowhood reduced a woman to a sub-human state. Women who lost their husbands were made to shave their heads, stay away from society, and had to practice extreme austerity, such as eat cooked seeds of water lily:

Ivan urai vaazhkkaiyo, aridhe! Yaanum
Mannuru mazhith thalaith then neer vaara,
Thondru thaam  udutha amm pagaith theriyal
Siru vell aambal alli unnum
Kazhi kala magalir pola,
Vazhi ninaindhiruththal, adhaninum aridhe!

Marakothu Nappasalaiyar, Puranaanooru 280

Translation (George Hart):
For you to stay alive in this world
Is hard! 
But far harder it is for me to think
Of living like the widows who have shed their ornaments
Water trickling down my 
Shaved head caked with mud,
And for food (eat) the seeds
Of the small water lily
That was his garland of war

As is evident from the aforesaid verses, widows committed sati to escape the sub-human life of widowhood. The practice of a woman committing suicide after the husband dies is mentioned in Tholkappiyam. Sati was practiced during Sangam age: literature from the age talks about thipaaidal, or walking into flames. The act of a woman walking into her husband’s funeral pyre is also mentioned, and she is also hailed as a “good, great woman”. [Tholkappiyam, Porul 79].

The qualities espoused by Sangam literature with respect to women: chastity, unquestioning devotion to the husband, dying when the husband does, pride in having birthed a male child, are all means to the end: maintaining the status quo—male dominance and patriarchy, through misogynistic strictures forced upon women. “It is an age old technique  to praise or glorify some actions / nature of suppressed that is advantageous to the suppressor”, says Balu S.

The influence of this such glorified discriminatory and misogynistic values can be seen in Thiruvalluvar’s works, discussed in the next section.

The bubble bursting series

Introducing a series that looks at how women are perceived and portrayed in Tamil literature, films, pop culture and thereby, in Tamil country

In November 2017, Tamil cine actor Athulya Ravi put up a Facebook status apologising to her fans for agreeing to do certain scenes in her (then) upcoming movie, Yemaali. Her apology followed an outrage among her male fans over two scenes in the movie’s trailer: one where she is seen smoking, and one where she is seen taking her shirt off, her back to the camera. The fans were outraged at her audacity to play the unconventional woman, and quite a number of them bullied her on social media.

In a bid to keep peace, and in all probability to stave off negative publicity for the movie, she thanked fans who stood by her, and apologised to those who were “disappointed” by her. 

Athulya had won the hearts of the people with her role in Kadhal Kan Kattudhe. She was seen as the clichéd, non-threatening, girl-next-door: she wore salwar kameez, a bindi, gave her boyfriend trouble (as defined in the chauvinistic male’s mind), and ultimately bows down to her man. The trouble with stardom in Tamil Nadu, and probably India is, some of that on-screen image comes to be associated with the star. They are expected to live up to it. Which makes it all the more difficult for female actors to navigate the reel and real worlds: they have an imagined personality, plus the moral codes of the society to live up to. 

So when the male fanbase saw her smoking a cigarette, and taking her shirt off, they went berserk. She was shaking up her perfect image of the ideal thamizhachi (Tamil girl/woman). The thamizhachi is coy, naive, plays down her intelligence when she is around her man, cannot defend herself, means “yes” when she says “no” to the hero’s romantic advances. The thamizhachi does not own her sexuality, she silently yearns for the attention of the man who has her heart. In mainstream Tamil cinema, the woman who makes the first move, wear short skirts, bright lipstick, speaks good English, and shows will power is the bad woman, the villi (the Tamilised, female version of “villains”). They are also shown to disrespect boundaries (which the men can get glorified for)—think Neelambari (Padayappa, 1999), or Easwari (Thimiru, 2006). 

Should a movie have the female lead wear “modern dresses”, she will ultimately switch to the saree-bindi-jewellery avatar when she falls in love with the male lead. She is never superior to the men in her life. 

Athulya is not the first female artiste to be subjected to culture policing by Tamil male fans. Trisha Krishnan, once the darling of the masses, was harassed on social media for taking an anti-Jallikattu stance. She was perceived as taking a stance against Tamil culture. She received hate messages on Twitter, a number of protectors of “Tamil culture” (men of course) right away hurled misogynistic abuses at her, and a number of “jokes” that suggested she was sexually promiscuous were tweeted and retweeted. Her parents were dragged into the mess, called names. However, Tamil actors Vishal and Arya, who also did not take a pro-Jallikattu stand, were not accused of being sexually promiscuous, and did not receive rape threats. This indicates the disturbing pan-Indian belief that a woman’s honour lies in her chastity and sexual exclusivity.

In yet another incident, Dhanya Rajendran, Editor-in-Chief, The News Minute, was trolled on Twitter for tweeting out a criticism of Shah Rukh Khan’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, calling it worse than Sura, a movie Tamil actor Vijay as the lead. Fans of Vijay were so enraged, that they made #PublicityBeepDhanya trend (they tweeted abuses directed at her with the hashtag). She received a tweet shortly before the hashtag started trending, warning her that it would happen. Fans even dug deep into her older tweets, unearthing her earlier criticisms of Vijay and tweeting rape threats at her for them.

That Vijay’s movies can be counted among the most misogynistic mainstream Tamil cinema content, then, comes as no surprise.

These are but few examples of how misogyny has become a part of Tamil society, something that has come to be associated with Tamil men and, specifically, Tamil masculinity. That these incidents have taken place in 2017, is cause for worry. With the increasing number of crimes against women, especially involving men rejected by their objects of romantic interest, makes it important to examine the gender roles defined in Tamil society, how misogyny and sexism have been woven into the idea of “Tamil culture”, and how it has been glorified over a long period of time.

With this series, I hope to add to the body of work that are meant to be used for analysing social structures and practices that enable misogyny.

In this series

Women in Sangam Literature

Mona Lisa Smile: A tug-of-war between feminism and the system

mona lisa smile
A still from the movie. Source: Fanpop

In India, should you be a woman of 25 or older and unmarried, it offends people to no end. An unmarried woman taking life at her own pace is an irritant in their otherwise peaceful lives. I’d recently been to a friend’s house, we were meeting after a year of only WhatsApp messages. We were talking and her father walked in, and before I could finish saying “Hi, Uncle”, he shot the question at me: “Eppo saapaadu poda pora?” (rough translation: when are you going to invite me to your wedding?). He is not even a wee bit familiar with me as a person, he just knows me as the friend of his daughter (who’s married of course). This man is the quintessential marriage-obsessed Indian. We cannot fully blame him or his lot. It has been drilled into their heads that women are meant to be married off, and that that is what they are meant to aspire to. If you are a woman and married, even if just for a week, people will start asking you about your plans to start a family.

Mona Lisa Smile, set in 1953-54, tackles this unhealthy obsession with subjugating women as merely meant for marriage, borne out of patriarchy, how the system drives it, and what it takes to be an individual who goes against the established norm. And boy do the ethos and social demands of those times reflect the India of 2018.

Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) joins the Wellesly College, Massachusetts, as a teacher of Art History. She looks forward to having an easy time there, only to discover that the women’s college is rather conservative and orthodox in its approach to educating women; they even have “marriage lectures”, as Katherine puts it, where girls are trained to take care of their husbands and be supportive of their spouses’ careers. The girls are equally eager to get married, bake sugar cakes, and have children. Katherine is appalled to no end that young women with so much potential do not aspire to be more than just good wives. She introduces the class to modern art, teaches them to pay attention, observe, think beyond the textbooks, for her classes and more. She faces resistance from the snooty, condescending students and a hostile management.

How Katherine deals with all of it, and whether she succeeds in making the students think big, forms the plot.

Julia Roberts, needless to say, is brilliant. There is this scene where her first day as a teacher does not go well, and she calls her boyfriend for comfort. The moment she hears him ask if she’s okay, she chokes. It is so realistic and relatable, it makes you want to reach out and comfort her.

The actors who play the students, too, are convincing and breathe life into their otherwise one-dimensional roles (Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles). The interactions among the students in class, is so natural and reminiscent of your own college days, they have you smiling. There is also a scene where Giselle (Gyllenhaal) stands in front of a mirror in the college’s dormitory, and after a moment of consideration wonders out loud if she looks like Katherine. That was, again, a very natural, starry-eyed-student thing to do. Props to Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal for the screenplay.

The cinematography (Anastas Miches) warrants appreciation. The set up moves from freeing to suffocating, based on how Katherine feels in each space, effectively taking her side: the room for the marriage lectures and the dormitory seem suffocating, and in both settings, the topic of discussion is marriage, child-rearing, being a good housewife. Katherine’s room at the college, in contrast, is cozy, messy-in-a-nice-way, and true to her non-conformist self. The amount of thought that would have gone into carefully arranging the space to set the mood shows how much the makers care about the art.

On the whole, Mona Lisa Smile is a heartwarming tale of lessons taught and learnt, told in a manner that is not melodramatic or overtly sentimental. Worth a watch. Or two. Or maybe three.


Director: Mike Newell

DoP: Anastas Miches

Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles

Weekly Fix: Syrian deaths, re-elected leaders, scam updates


Xi Jinping can remain president for life

The National People’s Congress passed a constitutional amendment on March 11, removing the two-term limit on the presidency in China. Know more.


Russian airstrike kills 61 in Syria

According to Anadolu Agency, the White Helmets civil-defence agency confirmed the death toll and said the attack occurred in the town of Kafr Batna. – ANI


Trump Jr’s wife files for divorce

Vanessa Haydon Trump is seeking an uncontested divorce. The two are splitting after 12 years of marriage. More here.


Finland is world’s happiest country

The 2018 World Happiness Report shows that the top four slots have been taken by Nordic countries, in the following order: Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. More facts here.


Bidhya Devi Bhandari wins the second term as Nepal’s President

She is also the first Nepali President to be re-elected. President Bhandari garnered over 74 percent of the votes to be re-elected, while her rival Nepali Congress’ Kumari Laxmi Rai hardly drew 25 percent of the votes. More here.


Merkel re-elected for fourth term

Angela Merkel, who has been in office since 2005, was re-elected to the German Parliament on March 14. More here.


Stephen Hawking dies

The prominent British theoretical physicist has died at the age of 76, a family spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday. More here.


Saudi to issue tourist visas

Saudi Arabia is planning to issue its first official tourist visas from April 1, according to tour operators.

The plan is a bid to allow non-Muslim tourists visit historic sites such as Jeddah, Riyadh and the ancient city of Mada’in Saleh in the Arabian Desert. – ANI


Tibetan women hold anti-China demonstration in Dharamshala

Over one thousand Tibetan women, including Tibetan Buddhist nuns and young students, gathered to participate in the protest march against the Chinese rule in Tibet. More here.


Myanmar allegedly building military bases on Rohingya land

Detailed satellite images published by Amnesty International on March 12 appeared to show “new security infrastructure” replacing the burnt homes of the refugees after Myanmarese forces launched a brutal campaign against the Rohingyas, which the United Nations has described the violence as “ethnic cleansing”. More here.



Finance Bill passed in Lok Sabha

The Bill was passed in 30 minutes, and 218 amendments were cleared, without debate!


35,000 farmers march 180 kms to Mumbai, govt bows to demands

Around 35,000 farmers from Nashik, Maharashtra, set out on March 6 to Mumbai to demand that the government fulfill its promises to them, which are chiefly loan waivers, profitable prices for their produce, and title to forest land. Traversing 180 kms on foot, they reached Mumbai on March 11. The farmers have agreed to withdraw the protest after the Fadnavis-led government gave assurance in writing that their demands will be fulfilled. Here’s an explainer.


Bhawana Kanth second Indian woman fighter pilot to fly solo

Flying Officer Bhawana Kanth became the second woman pilot of Indian Air Force to fly solo in a fighter aircraft. She flew in a MiG-21 Bison aircraft from Ambala Air Force Station on Friday. She is second only to Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi who created history on February 21 by being the first ever woman fighter pilot to fly solo. – ANI


PNB Fraud case: 11 arrested

A CBI court in Mumbai remanded to judicial custody 11 persons in connection to the Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam. More here.


TDP breaks alliance with BJP

Estranged ally, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) on Friday pulled out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The decision was taken following a tele-conference conducted by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu with his party members – ANI



Dhinakaran launches party

The name of his party is Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK). The party’s flag bears Jayalalithaa’s image. More here.


Telephone exchange scam: Maran Brothers Discharged

A CBI court in Chennai discharged Dayanidhi Maran and Kalanidhi Maran due to lack of prima facie evidence. Full story here.



6 Inventions You Wouldn’t Have Without Women – Nat Geo

A late share, this is an International Women’s Day special. Psst… the inventions include wireless tech!


The Relationship Between Creativity and Mental Illness – Brain Pickings

Did mental illness facilitate [these creators’] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship? Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties? Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?

Fascinating read.


The Tyranny of Convenience – The New York Times

Does convenience have a dark side? Should it be one of the ideals to aim for? Is convenience liberating? Read this profound write-up by Tim Wu and decide for yourself.


Kisan Long March: Everything You Need To Know

Source: India Today

Around 15,000 farmers of the All Indian Kisan Sabha (AIKS), who started on the “Long March of the Farmers” to Mumbai from Nashik last week, met a government panel on March 12.

The farmers have agreed to withdraw the protest after the Fadnavis-led government gave assurance in writing that their demands will be fulfilled.

Around 35,000 farmers from Nashik, Maharashtra, set out on March 6 to Mumbai to demand that the government fulfill its promises to them, which are chiefly loan waivers, profitable prices for their produce, and title to forest land. Traversing 180 kms on foot, they reached Mumbai on Sunday. They had intended to gherao the Mantralaya, Maharashtra’s legislative assembly, on Monday, to voice their demands.

What is the Kisan Long March?

kisan 1
Source: Scroll.in

Thousands of farmers started their 180-km long march from Nashik to Mumbai last week, to demand that the government fulfill its promises to them. The number soon grew to 35,000 as many more joined them along the way.  The march was organised by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a farmers’ association affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

What are their demands?

Here are the top demands of the farmers:

  • An unconditional waiver of their loans and electricity bills.
  • A Minimum Support Price (MSP) that is 1.5 times the input cost of the produce
  • Immediate implementation of the recommendations put forward by the M.S. Swaminathan Commission, which are in the interest of farmers
  • Compensation for loss of crops due to unseasonal rains, pink bollworm infestation, and hailstorms
  • Implementation of Forest Rights Act, which entitles tribal communities to forest land
  • Termination of the forceful acquisition of farm lands for developmental projects such as super highways and bullet trains

What do forest lands have to do with an agrarian protest?

Thousands among those who joined the march are tribals and landless farmers who are dependent on forest lands and forest resources for eking out a livelihood. They, however, do not have title to the very land they till or use for economic activities: conflicting implementation of the Forest Rights Act brought control over such lands under the forest department.

The Forest Rights Act seeks to provide land title to such communities and thus secure their livelihood. However, according to a 2017 report by the Community Forest Rights- Learning and Advocacy Group Maharashtra, implementation of the Act is far from perfect. Dr. Geetanjoy Sahu, one of the authors of the report, has stated that this is due to “political challenges”.

Dwindling agricultural income, drought,and unfavourable pricing policies render the livelihood of such landless farmers more onerous. The landless farmers have pinned their hopes on the government transferring to them title to the forest land they cultivate.

What is the Swaminathan Commission? What are its recommendations?

Source: Dinamani

The government of India set up the National Commission on Farmers (NCF), with Professor M.S. Swaminathan as the chairperson. It was constituted to address the growing farmer distress and the rising number of farmer suicides in India. The Swaminathan Commission submitted five reports in total, with the fifth report containing vital recommendations for the inclusive growth of farmers and the agricultural sector. Here is a snapshot of the recommendations made by the Commission:

Land reforms

  • Distribute ceiling-surplus and waste lands
  • Prevent the diversion of agricultural and forest land for non-agricultural purposes
  • Allow grazing rights to tribals and pastoralists and also allow them seasonal access to forests
  • Provide them access to common property resources

Irrigation reforms

  • Provide sustained and equitable access to water for all farmers
  • Increase water supply through rainwater harvesting, mandatory recharge of aquifers
  • Launch “Million Wells Recharge” programme, targeting private wells
  • Implement new schemes for groundwater recharge

Productivity of agriculture

  • Increase public investment in irrigation, drainage, land development, water conservation, research development, etc. substantially
  • Set up a national network of advanced soil testing laboratories with facilities for detection of micronutrient deficiencies.
  • Promote conservation farming, which will enable farmers to conserve soil health, water quality, and biodiversity.

Credit and insurance

  • Expand the outreach of the formal credit system to reach the really poor farmers
  • Reduce rate of interest for crop loans to 4 per cent simple, with government support
  • Announce moratorium on debt recovery, including loans from non-institutional sources, and waive interest on loans in distress hotspots and during calamities, till capability is restored
  • Establish an Agriculture Risk Fund to provide relief to farmers in the aftermath of successive natural calamities
  • Issue Kisan Credit Cards to women farmers, with joint pattas as collateral
  • Develop an integrated credit-cum-crop-livestock-human health insurance package
  • Expand crop insurance cover to cover the entire country and all crops, with reduced premiums
  • Create a Rural Insurance Development Fund to spread rural insurance

Food Security

  • Implement a universal public distribution system
  • Reorganise the delivery of nutrition support programmes to include participation of Panchayats and local bodies
  • Promote the establishment of Community Food and Water Banks operated by Women Self-help Groups (SHG)
  • Formulate a National Food Guarantee Act continuing the useful features of the Food for Work and Employment Guarantee programmes

You can access the full list of recommendations and observations here.

What has the Maharashtra government assured the farmers of?

Irrigation Minister Girish Mahajan said the government has “agreed on 100% demands”, including transfer of title to land, reported The Hindu. The government has given its assurance in writing that all the farmers’ demands will be fulfilled.

Is this the first farmer protest?

There have been multiple protests and demonstrations by farmers from Maharashtra over the past two years.

A similar protest was organised in March 2016 by the AIKS. Around 40,000 protesters spent two days at the CBS Square in Nashik city, some of them blocking the highway. The government invited a delegation for talks after the March 2016 protest as well.

In October 2016, over 15,000 tribals from Palghar district attempted to surround the home of Tribal Development Minister Vishnu Savara. Hundreds of those tribals from Palghar were part of the march this week.

In June 2017, various farmer leaders came together, though rifts appeared in the end. The current march is conspicuously missing large populations of western Maharashtra farmers, according to The Indian Express.

Farmer protests also took place in Madhya Pradesh in June 2017, demanding loan waivers. Police opened fire on the farmers, killing five. Farmers of Tamil Nadu have also been protesting since 2016, demanding drought relief. This was one of the most gory protests, yet had little effect on the Centre.

Fluoride Diaries


Nirmala Hanumappa Hosamane, or Nimmi as she is fondly called, is like every other 5-year-old: curious, affectionate, and a love for playing in the outdoors.

Nirmala Hanumappa Hosamane

When she noticed that I was talking to her mother, Annapurana, she came running and sat swiftly on the latter’s lap.

I’d been talking to Annapurana about how children in the village have been affected by fluorosis.

“Today is one of her good days,” she says, referring to Nimmi. “The bones in her leg ache so much she finds it difficult to walk. Her knees swell at least once a month”, she says.

Nimmi is a very happy child, she says, except for the days when her legs hurt her.



Huligemma (12), Nimmi’s cousin, gets frequent stomach aches in addition to having painful bones and joints. She loves taking part in sports activities, but her condition impedes her. Her teeth are pitted and have taken on a brown streak.






Vinay Kumar Eerappa Uppar (15) has discoloured teeth and suffers from frequent bouts of dry eyes. He, too, has joint pains in the legs. And, he is, understandably, rather reluctant to smile.

A common sight in the village is children with discoloured teeth. There is also a complaint of pus and pain around the teeth.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the most common cause of fluorosis is the “ingestion of excess fluoride” through drinking water. It “affects teeth and bones”.

Dental fluorosis develops much earlier than skeletal fluorosis. WHO also says that moderate amounts can have dental effects, while long-term ingestion can cause “severe” skeletal problems.

Skin rashes and bowed legs are caused due to chronic exposure to fluoride

Children of Mustikoppa show signs of chronic exposure to fluoride, through drinking water. They complain of stiff joints, knee pain, back pain, and a few of them, bowed legs—signs of skeletal fluorosis. Some even develop rashes on their skin.

Fluorosis is an endemic disease in India, prevalent in 20 states, according to Fluoride and Fluorosis. In Karnataka, 14 districts have been identified as having endemic fluorosis, Gadag being one of them.

Fluoride is present in high quantities in the soil and rocks in this region, which is dependent on groundwater for drinking. Groundwater in this region is, therefore, subject to geogenic contamination that occurs due to natural causes, specifically due to interaction between water and rock. Consuming this water has led to exposure to fluoride.

According to the groundwater studies conducted by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), the fluoride content in Mustikoppa’s drinking water ranges from 0.2-3.2 mg/l – very high as per Indian standards, which is 1.0 to 1.5 mg/l. This is not a range—the acceptable limit is 1.0 mg/l, while it is 1.5 mg/l if there is no alternate source of drinking water available.

Mustikoppa does not have a Primary Health Centre (PHC) or even a clinic. To get medical treatment, residents need to visit Kalikeri, a village with the nearest PHC and which is 5 kms away. There is no anganwadi either.

The PHC in Kalikeri, too, is not equipped for child care.

Savitha Beerappa Megeri (24) is a mother of two girls, Yellamma (5) and Ashwini (3). She says both have frequent stomach pain, and develop skin rashes on and off.

“There is no paediatrician who can address the issues. The last time I took them to (the PHC in) Kalikeri, they told me it was due to contaminated water, but not due to fluoride in the water,” she says.

An RO water plant has been installed in the village to enable the villagers to access clean drinking water. They need to pay Re.1 for 10 litres of water. The zilla panchayat has also ensured the installation of a rainwater harvesting system (RWH) in every household. Yet, villagers who live closer to the water pump continue to use it to pump out the contaminated drinking water.

The village’s water pump

“Water from the pump is sweeter than the RO water”, reasons Rekha Basappa (13). A few of the adults who had gathered chuckled in agreement.

But how about the water harvested through the RWH, I ask.

“We had little rain this time, there wasn’t enough to store”, they say in unison.

Mustikoppa also gets water for domestic purposes from the Tungabhadra every two days, for two hours. The water is not fit for drinking, according to the people of Mustikoppa.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) agrees: it regularly monitors the Tungabhadra river under Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) and Monitoring of Indian National Aquatics System (MINARS) programme. According to a KPSCB report, the Tungabhadra water mostly belongs to ‘B’ (outdoor bathing) ‘C’ (drinking water source with conventional treatment followed by disinfection) at different locations and during different months.

The Panchayat Adyaksh, Hanumanthappahalli, was not available for comment.

H B Gadigaravama, an official of the Department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, said that Mundargi Taluk has recorded the highest levels of fluorosis in Gadag district.

“We test the water regularly and continuously (sic)”, he said. “We also visit the villages frequently”. He also said that they were adhering to the guidelines and practices prescribed by the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Fluorosis (NPPCF).

Dr. R R Hosamani, District Fluorosis Consultant, said that they were holding awareness programmes in schools in the district regularly, and that currently, they were testing borewell water in Gadag.

While there is no cure for fluorosis according to CGWB, the PHC in Kalikeri hands out medication in the form of tablets to the people of Mustikoppa.

“The tablets keep the pain at bay for maybe two days. After that, we are back to dealing with the tears and aches”, says Savitha, gently carassing Yellamma’s head.

This report is also available as a visual story here.

Weekly Fix: Bomb blasts, Kamal’s party, and CWB

Source: ANI


India calls Maldives’ extension of Emergency “unconstitutional”, elicits searing response

“The Government of Maldives takes note of the public statements issued by the Government of India that ignore the facts and ground realities with regard to the ongoing political developments in the Maldives,” says Maldives’ first direct response.

Updates on the Rohingya crisis

Bombs exploded in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, though who was behind this remains unclear. Additionally, satellite images indicate that Myanmar authorities have razed down at least 55 Rohingya villageseffectively erasing any legal holdings the people (Rohingyas) had.

Pakistan riskiest country to be born in, says UNICEF

The UNICEF has released a report on the neo-natal mortality rates (deaths per 1,000 live births, before the babies turn a month old) of countries. Pakistan ranks the highest, while Japan has been deemed the safest. How does India fare?

Twin car bombings leave close to 40 dead in Mogadishu, Somalia

The explosions, one at the presidential palace and the other close to a popular hotel, were followed by gunfire. The al-Shabab have claimed responsibility for the attack. Full report here.

Indian Peacekeepers provide veterinary services to South Sudan farmers

In South Sudan, cattle are a valuable source of food, bartered as commodities, and given as dowry for marriage. The animals in this region are prone to diseases, and this service is being provided with the aim of reviving livestock in the region. Full report here.

Russian Church Shooting: 4 dead

Four people were killed and four others were injured after a gunman on Sunday opened fire on people leaving a church service in Russia’s Dagestan region, reports ANI.

Florida legislators vote down bill to ban assault rifles

This, even after members of Congress, state legislators, and student survivors of the Parkland shooting called for tougher gun control laws.

Taco Bell cashier uses racial slur to refer to Asian American customer

He gave the name ‘Steve’ to avoid the hassle of having to spell out his real name – but was outraged when a staff member then branded him ‘Steve Chink’ on the receipt. Full story here.

Trump Jr visits India to boost sales of luxury apartments

Donald Trump Jr. told the Times of India that the Trump Organization was turning down new business opportunities around the world because of his father’s position.

Trudeau visits India

PM Modi, who has earlier broken protocol to receive world leaders on several occasions, had not extended the same courtesy to Mr Trudeau, in what was seen as a snub over Mr Trudeau’s alleged soft stance over Khalistan supporters, reports NDTV.



Mathura towns will be promoted as pilgrimage destinations: Yogi Adityanath

“In this budget, we have given Rs. 100 crore for the development of this area. Mathura’s Barsana, Vrindavan, and Gokul towns will be promoted as pilgrimage destination,” Adityanath told ANI. This is not a first for him.

Avalanche in Himachal Pradesh

A BRO team, which was pressed into the rescue operation, pulled out a trapped jawan after several hours of efforts.

Singer Papon caught on camera molesting child

It started as a harmless live streaming on Facebook of Holi celebrations by the crew of the reality show Voice of India Kids, of which the singer is a judge. He can be seen kissing a girl on her lips, even as the cameraman exclaims in shock.

Kashmiri Women’s  Day of Resistance observed on Feb 23

Yes. There is such a Day. Here are the details. Bharat is not mahaan after all.

Kerala tribal youth murdered by mob for stealing food

The man had reportedly stolen food items worth Rs.200 as he couldn’t afford it. ANI reports that the incident took place on February 22, when a tribal man died after being beaten by a group of people in Palakkad’s Attappadi village. The deceased has been identified as Madhu.

Actor Sridevi dies of cardiac arrest

Sridevi was reportedly with her husband Boney Kapoor and daughter Khushi at the time of death. They were with the entire Kapoor family in UAE to attend the wedding ceremony of Mohit Marwah.



TN leaders unanimously decide to meet PM, demand CMB

The leaders will also press for a Cauvery Water Regulatory Authority. The TN govt has also accepted suggestions to consult legal experts and explore legal recourse options to the verdict. Full report here.

Kamal Haasan launches political party

Here‘s a blow-by-blow report.

Beach Festival violates Madras HC orders

The Spoken Wave Festival was all set to happen on the shores of Chennai. Until Shravan Krishnan filed a PIL and won (citing that the nesting of Olive Ridley turtles would be disturbed). The Madras HC gave very specific conditions under which the event could be conducted. The organisers simply didn’t toe the line.

Mother Nature acknowledges Save Ennore Creek campaign

And my heart sings! Check it out here.


Well, today’s theme seems to be nature and conservation.

Odisha’s Ganjam district, where blackbuck are dearer than sons – The Hindu

This is a fascinating read. Anything I quote will be a spoiler 🙂

How Did an All-Female Species Survive Sans Sexual Reproduction for Millennia? – The Wire

The Amazon molly practices asexual reproduction, and give birth to exact clones of the mothers. According to experts, the species should have gone extinct by now. But here they are, very much alive and kicking (or should I say swimming?).

You’d Think Cutting Kodai Plantations Will Save Its Grasslands. It Won’t. – The Wire

Think you understand Nature? Think again.


The Life and Times of Nochikuppam

loop road
Loop Road

Walking on to the Marina Loop Road equipped with a knowledge of its past was a surreal experience. The strip of land on which the Road currently runs, flanked by the Marina Beach on the east and Nochikuppam on the west, was part of what was initially granted to the British East India Company to construct a factory and warehouse. Renowned historian of Chennai S Muthiah notes in his book Tales of Old and New Madras that a fishing village, Madrasapatnam, was part of the land granted. There is enough historical evidence that fishing settlements were here before the tiny strip of land grew into Madras, and much before modern day Chennai. Yet, the residents haven’t been provided proper title deeds to their land to date.

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 1991, led way to acceptance of the land rights of the fishing community. However, the lack of clarity in the definition of the people entitled to the rights, have made it easy to deny them the entitlement to live where they always have.

Additionally, their settlements were classified as “slums” under the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act, 1971. The Act bestowed control over their lands to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB), which has led to the fishing community being “resettled” in a haphazard manner, the most common practice being relocating the people quite far away from where they went fishing.

As a result, “kuppam”, which meant a fishing hamlet, has come to be synonymous with “slum” and the accompanying unfavourable assumptions and imagery: anti-social activities, unsafe in general, and dishonest people.

Nochikuppam, officially Nochi Nagar, is one of the many kuppams that have been dealt such a fate. For ease of reporting, this write-up uses “slum” to refer to Nochi Kuppam/Nochi Nagar, as it has been registered as one.

The oldest residents of this slum have been living here for approximately 60 years, and do not recall much of what it was like before they were shifted to the tenements built by TNSCB except that they were living on the beach in tents.

Makeshift fish stalls manned by women on the east side of Loop Road mark the entrance of the slum area. Nochi Nagar can be categorised into two areas based on the amenities available and living conditions: the Emergency Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme (ETRP) buildings plus the buildings that came after, and the tenements built in the 1970s, both constructed by the Tamil Nadu government.

The making of Nochi Nagar

The fishing hamlet that consisted of shacks and tents on the shore were shifted to tenements made of brick and iron in 1973. They are now in a dilapidated condition, yet most of them continue to be occupied.

dilapidated tenements
A view of the dilapidated tenements

These tenements are all 5X10 feet. The floor is of cement, walls made of bricks, and the roof of tin and iron. Each tenement is a single room, divided into a space for the kitchen, space for bathing, and a living room, with little physical demarcation to separate each area. Everyone in the house bathes inside the house, at the left corner where the floor has been made hollow, and has an outlet for the water to drain. The public toilets, situated a few metres away, are the only ones available for all the residents.

“It is mortifying, but we don’t have a choice”, says Velankanni M (30), who lives in one of these houses. She works as a housekeeper at Sun City. Her husband works as a mason. They have two sons, both of whom are in primary school.

Velankanni says the residents live in constant uncertainty.

“In 2004, the tsunami damaged the entire settlement. We were promised a flat each in those buildings (she points to the ETRP apartments), but not all of us have been given one. We put our hard-earned money to make these houses liveable”, she says.

But it didn’t stop with the tsunami.

“The 2015 floods were horrifying. Our roof leaked and we couldn’t do anything about it. The 2016 cyclone (Vardah) too, took away our roof. The last two years were filled with turmoil. I was constantly fearing for our safety”, she says.

Velankanni says that the one positive aspect of living here is the free electricity.

“As we don’t have to pay for the electricity, people who have been assigned flats lease them out and come back here to live”, she smiles wryly.

The electricity, even though free, is rather irregular. Unannounced power cuts are common, and they last for hours.

“At least four hours”, Velankanni says.

Invisible discrimination

The premises of the green coloured buildings were built between 2009 to 2014, out of the Tamil Nadu government’s own funds. The space between one block of flats and another is narrow, with parking space for vehicles; the compound wall is short (3 feet, approximately) and lacks any gates to secure the complex. The premises also have a few of the original houses built by some of the residents, and they remain as the owners refused to give them up for demolition. These families have not been allotted flats.

green buildings
The green apartments are reconstructions made out of the TN government’s funds, and allocated to the fishing community.

Manjula M (43), has been living here for 30 years now (she admits that she does not remember the exact number of years). The men go fishing, while the women sell the catch. On a good day, she says, the fishermen make up to Rs. 500.

She says the buildings painted green are occupied only by the fisher folk.

“A few of the families set up shacks here (she points to the vacant space between the compound walls and the buildings), but they were later made to vacate by the authorities”, she says. Who were these people, I ask.

“Oh, they do other things. They don’t fish. They don’t belong here”, she says gruffly.

“They knit fishing nets, work as housekeepers, and so on,” interjects Thamizharasi J (50), who had stopped by to listen in. Almost immediately Manjula hushes her, saying something under her breath, and they part ways.

In the block where Manjula lives, each floor has two flats. Each block consisting of four floors.

The flat is quite tiny, hardly 300 sq. ft. Manjula lives with her two children and her husband.

“We were handed a bare flat, with cement floor and no paint on the walls. We added the tiles and painted the walls using our own money”, she says.

These flats have their own washroom, however, it is tiny.

“The major issue here is water supply. We recently put together funds from our personal savings and set up borewells”, she says.

How about electricity, I ask.

“It’s irregular. We have power cuts that last for at least an hour a day”, she says.

Where the non-fishers retire

The buildings painted pink are the resettlement flats built under the ETRP, funded by the World Bank. According to a CAG audit report, the Programme allowed for building flats in Okkiam Thoraipakkam, All India Radio (AIR) site, and Nochikuppam. Nochikuppam is the only in situ reconstruction. However, after some of the flats were allegedly allocated to those who were not residents of the slum (they came from other tsunami-affected hamlets) and those who did not belong to the fishing community, there was a standoff between the Nochikuppam residents and TNSCB. This deadlock led to the World Bank withdrawing funds.

pink building
The pink buildings come under the State Emergency Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme

The Tamil Nadu government then decided to fund the projects, and as a result, only 628 flats have been built in total, as against the originally proposed 7320 tenements using the World Bank funds.

Another issue that the residents had with the allotment of flats was that the TNSCB did not account for the children of the original families, who are adults now and have families of their own: they have all been counted as a single family unit and allotted a single flat.

“How can so many of us live in such a small space?”, asks Thilakavathi S, who lives in one of the ETRP flats. A portrait of B R Ambedkar hangs in the living room.

These buildings are a lot more cramped: each block has four floors, and each floor has at least 42 flats on either side. The passages are ill-lit and more narrow than the stairs leading to the houses.

Thilakavathi says that they hardly have continuous electricity or water supply.

“During summer, we have water supply once every four days. In the winter, it is once every two days”, she says.

Very few people in the ETRP buildings go fishing. What do they do for a living, I ask.

“We are mostly daily wage labourers. Housekeeping and building construction work is what we take up”, she says.

Why aren’t they allowed to go fishing?

One woman, on condition of anonymity, said, “We belong to a lower caste. We can’t fish”.

No public schools and hospitals

Despite the varying levels of discrimination among the residents, they have a common issue: they have to spend on private education for their children and private health care for their families.

The nearest emergency medical facility is at Luz Corner. The choice of schools is St. Thomas and Santhome High School.

“We want our children to get good education. We can’t depend on corporation schools for that. Those of us who can afford to, send the children to private schools”, says Manjula.

A beacon of hope

Swapna Sundari (55) was talking to a group of women under a makeshift shack constructed right next to the ship-shaped public toilet.

Taking time off the meeting to talk to this writer, she explained that she was helping the women with their loan applications so they can set up their own businesses.

She maintains a register with their names, and how much they need to repay each month.

“One of them wants to sell flowers, and another wants to set up a shop to sell dosa batter. This lets them have financial independence”, she explains.

Swapna has also taught the residents how to open a bank account, how to deposit and withdraw money.

She has been working with various NGOs including Action Aid, to help the residents of the slum lead better lives.

She has worked with the police department to prevent caste clashes in the slum and organised the youth to collect funds for setting up lights in the area.

“The lights have made a huge difference. It makes the area feel safe, and discourages men from misbehaving with women”, she says.

Another problem that used to constantly flare-up was the clash between original residents of Nochikuppam and those who have been resettled here from other fishing hamlets post-tsunami.

“This has reduced, the youth are more compassionate now”, she states.

Alcoholism is another major issue, she says. Despite staging street plays and conducting workshops, the men slip into drinking after a few days of staying away from it.

“They work hard at sea, and liquor has become their only source of comfort. I am still working with NGOs to change this”, Swapna says wistfully.

The need for government support

Swapna says that the government needs to work with the people’s welfare as priority and provide more in situ constructions than displacing an entire slum.

“These people typically live close to their source of livelihood. How is it fair to place them so far away?” she asks.

Slum resettlement is about improving the quality of live of the people living in them, and the government needs to put their needs first, and stick to the spirit of the motto, reminiscent of an MGR song: “God we shall see in the smile of the poor”.

Weekly Fix: High school shooting, gender crimes, CAMPA, and more earthquake

Tribal women carry bundles of twigs and leaves near Shantiniketan, 150 km (95 miles) northwest of Calcutta on March 18, 2004. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw/Files
Source: Reuters


Parkland Shooting latest of school shooting incidents; survivors rally for gun control

On February 14, Nikolas Cruz, a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida, walked into the school and opened fire on students. President Trump offered “thoughts and prayers”, and spoke about mental illness, giving the country’s problematic gun control a miss. Check out the entire timeline of the shooting here.

WHO tightens guidelines to check the surge of C-Sections

Specifically, the UNO’s health wing has called for the elimination of the “one centimetre per hour” dilation benchmark, as pregnancy is unique to every woman and what applies to one may not apply to another. Details here.

Pakistan court awards death sentence for man who raped minor

Imran Ali was found guilty of abducting, raping, and murdering a 7-year-old girl in Kasur. Small step forward for womankind.

66 die in Iran plane crash

Aseman Airlines’ commercial plane went down in a mountainous region in central Iran. More here.

Earthquake of 7.2 magnitude hits Oaxaca, Mexico

A helicopter carrying Interior Minister Alfonso Navarette and Governor Alejandro Murat, who were surveying the damage, crashed immediately after, killing two people. The ministers were not seriously injured, according to officials. More here.

Baloch Republican Party protests in Munich against Pak atrocities

The Baloch Republican Party’s (BRP) Germany chapter has held a rally and a protest demonstration in Munich on the occasion of the Munich Security Conference conducted in the city (ANI). More here.


Punjab National Bank uncovers fraudulent transactions by Nirav Group, Nirav Modi evades arrest

Punjab National Bank (PNB), a PSU, has discovered fraudulent transactions to the tune of Rs 11,400 crore in one of its Mumbai branches and has filed a complaint with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) even as concern of other banks being involved is being raised. For a detailed timeline, head here.

Tripura goes to elections

This will be the first direct face-off in the country between the Left and the  Right.

Mother and daughter accused of “witchcraft”, forced to eat human excreta in Jharkhand

Their heads were also tonsured by their own relatives. Excuse me for not being able type further about this. Head here for the full deal.

Cooperative spinning mills in Maharashtra to go for privatisation

The state’s new Textile Policy allows cooperative spinning mills and powerloom societies to change the use of land, which allows them to engage in other than industrial purposes. As per the policy, cooperative spinning mills and powerloom societies will be allowed to be privatised, provided they are ready to return to the government the equity, loan and interest thereupon, a government official said.

Draft rules of the Compensatory Afforestation Act notified by Environment Ministry

As is clear from the name, the Act aims to make up for the forest cover lost due to use of forest land for non-forest purposes. A fund for this purpose will be established at the national level. 90% of the funds will be distributed among the states. Here’s an explainer.

Jignesh Mevani detained ahead of Ahmedabad rally

The Independent MLA was on his way to join a rally against the death of Dalit activist Bhanu Vankar. Full report here.


Cat meat used in lieu of mutton in roadside eateries

Yes. I shuddered too. This has been happening for nearly two decades now! An investigation, led by People for Animals (PFA) with police support after they received complaints about missing cats, led to a jarring answer to the mystery. Here‘s the full story.

Software engineer attacked late night when on her way to work, three arrested

The three men stopped her, attacked her with an iron rod, and made away with her mobile phone, gold chain, and scooter. Details here.

Kamal Haasan invites Rajnikanth to his Madurai meeting

According to The Hindu, Haasan termed the meeting as a “courtesy call” and said that it was a “meeting of friends. This is not related to politics.”

He also said, “I have been meeting people who I like before I start my journey. In the last 40 years, it is a custom in both of our families that if there is some event in my house, we will invite Rajini’s family and vice versa.”


1. The 11 cities most likely to run out of water – like Cape Town – BBC

Bangalore figures in the list 😐

2. Smart Phone Detox: How to Power Down In A Wired World – NPR

A growing number of doctors and psychologists are concerned about our relationship with the phone. There’s a debate about what to call the problem. Some say “disorder” or “problematic behavior.” Others think over-reliance on a smartphone can become a behavioral addiction, like gambling.

“It’s a spectrum disorder,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, who studies addiction. “There are mild, moderate and extreme forms.” And for many people, there’s no problem at all.

In this way, the phone is kind of like alcohol, Lembke says. Moderate alcohol consumption can be beneficial, for some people.


3. The Secret History of Menstruation – JSTOR

Did you cringe when you read “menstruation”? Then this one’s a must read for you.

4. Meet the most vitriolic Valentine’s Day haters around the world – Scroll.in

It’s sort of comforting to know that India is not the only country with a stick up its arse.

5. The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of “jaywalking” – Vox

An interesting history of how the advent of automobiles made a villain out of pedestrians.

Happy reading people 🙂