Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Book Review: People Unlike Us

I wrote this almost an year back:

A book is an experience-good or bad! And if it is well written, it is more than just an experience, it’s like spending some time with someone, exploring a new world, wide-eyed, surprised, shocked, touched and moved! Reading a book is living a pseudo-life.

People Unlike Us was a chance discovery in our library and the topics it covered were known but not felt. So there was a desire to explore this horizon, to spare some time to know life beyond personal boundaries, assignment deadlines, hanging out, gossips, etc., because life is mind-boggling beyond our secured limitations.


This book is the third in the Contemporary Essays series by HarperCollins India. The media is flooded with issues (we can assume that from the fact that earlier we had only DD1 but now we have a host of 24-hour news channels). But the problem with our so-called competent and omnipresent media is that it chooses only those issues that the mighty, English-speaking middle-class finds interesting. If Lakme Fashion Week or marriage of Karishma Kapoor finds more time and space in the media than the plight and injustice to the poor and, and if we stay glued to our TVs so that we do not miss even one of the leggy ladies in the beauty pageants, then there is something seriously wrong with us.
Sometime back there was a Gender Workshop in the campus and surprisingly, I came across many guys in the group who were unable to buy the fact that girls are actually the less privileged in Indian society because in their immediate vicinity this did not happen. This beat the entire logic of conducting the workshop that was to inspire sensitivity towards each other and visualize things in a macro perspective. If I’m not dead does not mean that death is not a reality! While reading the book, I could relate this insensitivity with our own insensitivity towards several issues like encounters in Kashmir, sati, caste system, etc.
This book is an attempt to go beyond media approach of covering stories. Everyday there’s at least one news about murder, encounter or rape but how much does it affects us? This book lends faces to issues and brings them closer to reality, to our understanding. All the essays have been penned by competent journalists who took time off from their usual jobs to draw a picture of our country that has been highly marginalized.

Invisible Grief
by Muzamil Jaleel

It dates back to the time when militancy had just taken birth in the Valley, around 1988. The essay is about two remote villages along the LOC in Kashmir—the army massacred people in one, the militants in the other. You realize what has happened to the Paradise on Earth when you read the line-“the stadiums where we had played cricket and soccer, the beautiful green parks where we had gone on school excursions as small kids in white and grey uniforms, were turned into martyrs’ graveyards. One after another, those who used to play there were buried there with huge marble epitaphs detailing their sacrifice.”
The stories of two forgotten villages, both situated in the frontier district of Kupwara stir sentiments when you come to know how silent tragedy and invisible sufferings mar their life. In Warsun, the people had resisted the tide of militancy and were punished for garlanding a Union minister, while Pazipora witnessed one of the first, and biggest massacres by the army in 1990. There’s a woman who curse her for making her son stay back for one extra day for vacation, there’s a man who lost 22 of his family and friends, another woman who had to marry her late husband’s nephew, half her age and whom she had even cradled and there are numerous such living stories fresh on the minds of survivors of fate.
The army protects us from outsiders all right but the atrocities done by them on the natives of the Valley due to their own incapacity to deal with militancy, bring them to a human level, a human who errs and scars of which remain forever! It’s not about blaming the army but it’s about understanding the plight of those innocent people who happen to be there where politics and militancy is at its best.

The Economics of Sati by Sagarika Ghosh

The essay is about an economically backward village in UP, where Sati is viewed in terms of the benefits it would attract, nobody bothers whether it was really a Sati or a suicide framed a Sati. Actually, people live under this assumption that when in Rajasthan anyone commits Sati, it leads to a Sati temple and it attracts donations for the temple and thus, development work is initiated.
When you read about a son who’s not bothered to discuss whether his mother really committed Sati or just jumped into her husband’s pyre on impulse, you are amazed by the insensitivity of the people. But when you actually go through the plight of people living in that area, and the level of development across decades and through several election promises, you realize that it’s not people who should be blamed but it is poverty that is to be blamed.
This has been put out very clearly in the following lines-“ Poverty, as Amartya Sen has written, is not simply the lack of income. It is also the lack of a voice, of a responsive local administration that can redress local needs, the lack of a system of governance that is transparent and accountable to the people it supposedly exists to serve.”

Still There by Sankarshan Thakur

In our caste and religion obsessed society, this essay is a leaf from the level to which people fall in enforcing that perhaps caste is supreme to humanity. This particular essay talks about how two teenagers were hanged for daring to fall in love with each other, in a village in Uttar Pradesh-Rajasthan border. The girl was from the upper Jat community and the girl from the lower Chamar community. This was done to re-enforce the fact that in future nobody dares to attempt the same crime otherwise the fate of those two teenagers were exemplary. The fact that this story was narrated to the writer by a little boy, states how deeply this has been engraved in their psyche.
In fact, even after 10 years of this incident, that village has a Chamar sarpanch but things have not changed. The authority is still in the hands of the upper caste Jats, and this fact is not stated but meekly accepted.
In discussion, this matter came up that the so-called lower castes are actually taking advantage of the laws in their favour, for example, now nobody can call them Harijan or any such lower-caste name, because they can file case against anyone on the basis of discrimination. But the thing is when someone is victimized for long, he learns to take advantage of the situation in the way he can. We cannot expect a victim to remain suppressed forever.

Fragments from a Folder by Siddhartha Deb

This essay deals with the mainstream India’s lack of interest in Northeast. As is quoted in the essay-“ secession for the North-eastern States is simply a ratification of their alien status, an attempt on their part to make the contract bilateral so that they may be as free of India as India is free of them.” This essay brings forth the general Indian psyche about our view of people from Northeast.
I remember, I read once in the Times of India, a journalist accounted that wherever she went in India, she was always mistaken for a Chinese or Nepali or Burmese or anything else but not Indian. She had to actually make people believe that she was as much an Indian as anyone else. In fact, this is a general psyche because people from Northeast look a little different but then so does people from South India or North India. There is certain degree of ignorance and indifference in us towards them. This is reflected in the following line-“Ten years after I began explaining to people that Shillong was in Meghalaya and not the capital of Assam, there is still an imaginary Indian border that stretches as far as Bengal-sometimes up to Assam-and stops there.”
The essay talks about Government’s and general people’s indifference towards Northeast; in the wake of flattening out of differences and imposition of a structure that does not considers small anomalous groups.


I recommend this book to everyone as it mirrors that part of society, which we do not think about. Speaking about my own experience, after reading this, I felt blessed for having the life I have, and pained for the real people who suffer this, day in and day out.

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