June 27, 2015

In All Things, Charity

Annie was the first person to welcome me to my new apartment. She didn’t live in the building, but had dropped by to ask if I needed a cooking lady. A slight woman with a simple blue dress buttoned up modestly to hide a bosom too big for her shoulders; her salt and pepper hair was sculpted with pungent coconut oil into a tight bun. Her spectacles hung on a chain from her neck along with a simple gold crucifix. Without either she claimed to be blind.

I felt the urge to hide my ashtray full of spliffs when she came in on that first day, but she smiled and said, “What can one say or do… nowadays all you kids are like this, man.” She struck me as the sort of woman who having found God early on in life, had since been living for the eternal bliss she would eventually receive. 

We decided she would come in every morning and evening; but when later that year I was fired from my job, she started coming in three times. Rather than cook, she would come in and rip the sheets off me who had taken to lying in bed all day

While making me chai, she’d tell me stories about her younger son who had been born blind, her eldest who was the apple of her eye because he had skipped two grades in school and her husband who drank so much liquor that a single kiss from him left her inebriated. Daily, she’d take the train from their little jhuggi in Mahim; inevitably, she had a story to tell about that as well. Sometimes an amusing story from the platform, sometimes an unexpected harshness experienced in the ladies compartment.

In this time, I saw Annie more often than my friends. But, never considering her familiar enough to talk to about the terrifying listlessness unemployment brings about, I would sit on my dining table and listen to her ocean of stories. 

My house was the first of her stops and usually she worked late enough, that at the days’ end she’d have to take a cab back home as the train service had stopped. This she found annoying since no auto rickshaw would leave Bandra to go to town. The taxi home cost her at least 200 rupees on the days she could not find another person to share it with. This amount she considered obscene. 

Descriptions of her family in Mahim bothered me. Four of them shared a bedroom and kitchen along with one parrot - it sounded overcrowded and depressing. Living by myself in a place thrice as big, I couldn’t help but feel guilty at the luck of my draw. Inevitably I’d start to shift around in my seat when she told me stories about her house. There was a resentment I'd feel towards her when this would happen, even though she was good at keeping her stories amusing and light. 

When the month passed by without me finding another job, I was at my lowest and would not even leave my bed for chai. Annie started to push me towards alternatives I hadn't the heart to tell her were for housewives.

“Do something good to occupy your time, charity heals the soul” she said. For my part, I did my best not to make  particularly obvious the advice’s fast track from one ear out the other.

One morning, she came in with a pink flyer. Printed on it, a photograph of a tiny cardboard box from which three even tinier puppies were staring up at the big bad world. Their sad eyes seemed to implore you specifically, and it read “PUPPIES FOR FOSTER - please help!!” along with a phone number for those so inclined. I wasn’t and this is what I told Annie.

“Come on, they’re like little babies!” she said, “It’s only for a little while and it’ll do you good to help out!!” It took her a while and, frankly, I only agreed because I thought by then the dogs would have found a home.  

 The girl who dropped the puppies off was almost as perky as Annie, she seemed only a few years younger than I, was dressed like a university student. “There’s these three left, two of them have been adopted and their owners will come pick them up soon.” she told me, “and this little guy...” she said holding the tiniest one up for inspection, “is still looking for home, so if you're interested...”

He was so small, it was heart wrenching; he had droopy black ears and stuffed toy body, with a curly-whirly attached to his bum instead of a tail.

“I doubt it,” I told her, “but I’ll take care of all of them till you guys find homes.”

I have not had dogs since I was twelve, and here are the things you skip when raising a pet with parental supervision. They do not sleep, your world is their toilet, they puke everywhere and they eat anything.  One week, four phone chargers, eight pairs of shoes and innumerable late-night clean ups later, two of the puppies were picked up; I surprised myself by feeling sad.

“Little Tyson is the only one left!” said Annie when she came in that morning. “Stop giving him a name,” I said to her.  But, secretly, I thought LT, the shortened version of his Annie-christening, had a nice ring to it. LT certainly described, perfectly the pugnacious, little puppy. I realised that I had grown quite fond of him. “Maybe I’ll keep him,” I said, “I’ll go buy him a bed and some treats today.” Annie was quiet, but I didn’t think too much of it.

When later that day I got a call back for a job interview, I told Annie, “The universe is paying me back for helping out.” That’s not how charity works,” she said, but it was laughingly; so I thought it alright to roll my eyes at her and in my excitement, forgot her words.

The next morning the realisation that I’d need a puppy sitter in order to go for the interview had me nearly in tears. Annie arrived as always on time. “I’ll watch him,” she said to me, forever helpful. “But you’re working other houses.” I said.

“I’ll take him home to my boys, they have summer vacation. They’ll happily watch him and I’ll bring him back in the evening.”

It was a convenient solution for me, so I was quick to agree. I had a car and would most likely pass Mahim on my way to Nariman Point where the firm’s offices were. Searching for Annie’s little house in Mahim’s tiny winding streets would make me tardy. So I never thought to offer her a ride.

The interview went off well and by the time Annie came back, I was celebrating with a few friends and a few beers. “Oh yay,” someone said ironically when the door bell rang, “dog crap!” I laughed.

Annie stood with a boy, who was holding on to the puppy for dear life. He reached till my shoulders, was about fourteen; wide-eyed and skinny as children who run around Mumbai tend to be. “We’ve come to give you your dog,” he said before Annie could speak. He let go of LT who immediately bounded into the house.

“What do you say Jonah?” she said sternly. “Thank you for letting us play with him,” he said looking slightly dejected. “No! Why I thank YOU,” I said to him in a tone equivalent to ruffling his hair. 

Annie turned to me beaming “So how was the interview?” I smiled back, “I got the job! They’ve asked me to start from the day after!” “That’s wonderful!” she said. With that, she and her son went on their way. When I turned around, my friends were feeding LT beer. I chastised them but could not help laughing at the little dog’s bewildered expression after he’d gone through a few bowls of lager.

I had to find someone to watch LT while I was at work, and so struck a deal with the guard outside my apartment building. When Annie came in the morning, I told her the plan. “All you have to do is feed him in the morning and then give him to the guard, and bring him in, in the evening when you come to make dinner.”

It didn’t seem like a complicated routine to me. Raised by a working mother, my life had been a barrage of car pools and play dates. Annie, however, looked skeptical, “Are you sure about leaving him outside?” “Well, what would you have me do?” I asked. There was a bit of a silence before she said, “I could take him. My sons love him.” I thought of the one bedroom, four people and parrot and didn’t know whether to cry or to laugh. 

“That’s the worst idea I’ve heard yet.” I said to her, “He’s going to get bigger and bigger, where will you keep him? In your little jhuggi?” I was looking out for a puppy, I told myself. After all, he deserved the best care, like I was able to provide; with toys, treats and space.

As the weeks progressed, I thought my plan was working well. By the time I would get home from work, LT and Annie would be home and he would be fed.

I could have easily continued to sacrifice wires and shoes to him, but as work got busier, his playfulness became a burden. On more than one occasion, I sat him down and screamed, “Look dog, I don’t have time for you right now!” To keep him busy, I substituted my time with a multitude of toys. Still, he ate through both with a vengeance. 

As a month passed and he grew bigger, I realised it wasn’t going to be possible to keep LT with me. The guard I entrusted him with had taken to tying him to a pole through the day. His frantic barking had soured my whole building to the idea of having a dog in the compound. So I did what everyone does.

I put up flyers around my neighbourhood and a note on my Facebook. I asked my friends if anyone wanted a puppy. There was a lot of noise about how cute LT was, but no takers. Anyone with a space big enough to keep him didn’t want it ruined by a dog.

At that time, I thought of Annie, but could not bring myself to ask her to bail me out. She quietly reiterated her offer to take LT, and in fit of pride, I informed her that I had found a kennel that would take him.

Since I had done no such thing, Annie wasn’t the only one surprised by this announcement. To make matters worse for myself, I then went on to say, “Oh yea, they’re in Bandra and a wonderful facility, big rooms for the dogs and everything. I’m going to take LT there next week!” Annie was ecstatic; she wanted to know the address so she could visit LT on her days off and shyly she asked, “You won’t mind if my boys go with me would you?” Of course I didn’t mind. I wouldn’t if such a place existed. It didn’t.

Turns out that one has to pay through the nose to house a dog in Bombay, and that kind of money, I didn’t have. Looking at the mammoth price tags in dismay, I felt for the first time as small as the room in which Annie lived. After pouring through the Internet for days, I finally found a ‘dog motel’ (it was so called) nearby and one that I could afford. Sweet relief!

I gave Annie the address almost triumphantly and in the week that came, with a heavy heart, dropped LT off at the ‘motel’.

The motel’s grounds, which ran in a semi circle before the building, were well kept in a rather dull way; the grass was cut short but no flowers or trees adorned the garden. The building, a one-storey bungalow, must have been painted white once; literally just once. The original colour of the outer walls could’ve been anyone’s guess; they were thoroughly blackened by creeping mould.

A wiry, old man wearing a wife-beater and a green lungi let me into the grounds. Apart from him, not a soul seemed to breathe in the estate.  Despite the state of the property and the lack of staff, I tried to remain optimistic. After all, I thought, the website rated the place with three stars. Three stars are good enough for a dog, surely!

In the coming weeks, work kept me busy enough that I did not miss nor mourn LT’s absence. The only time I thought about him was when Annie would mention him, which she did often while she was cleaning. With some amount of dramatic woe she would suddenly pick up a rug and say, “It’s boring not having that little bugger around running around but at least the house doesn’t smell of number one anymore.” I would laugh, but that’d be it.

Till one Sunday, I was out the door on my way to the office. Having been unexpectedly called in, I was in a mood. So when Annie stopped me by the door and said, “I’m so glad I caught you, listen we must talk about Little Tyson baba. I went to visit him yesterday. I don’t like the place at all, I’m positively worried for the little fellow!” I snapped.

“Jesus Christ Annie, don’t you have something else to worry about? Your kids don’t need enough mothering or what? Relax about the dog okay? He’s fine, I know because I’m paying for it through my nose! How much more can I do!” She was a bit taken aback it was obvious, but with no time to fret about anyone else, I moved on quickly.

Later that week my boss was kind enough to give me a ride home. I was excited, having never spent much time with my boss outside of the office. It was certainly good for my career path to find an excuse to bond with him. So I steered our conversation towards LT and my benevolent role in his little life.

My boss seemed interested enough to spontaneously suggest, “Well, if this place is in Bandra, let’s go visit him, shall we?”  ‘Fantastic idea!’ thought I and gave him directions. So far, I had used every moment of the journey as a show-and-tell. Look how serious and intelligent I could be. We’d exchanged a few laughs and I was feeling elated. Was I using a puppy to further my prospects? I shrugged at the idea. So what?

Once again there was only the old man visible on the compound, this time in a maroon lungi. He was standing by the gate when we arrived in our car. “Hello I’ve come to see the little mixed breed dog, is he around back?” I said to the old man as he looked at me lazily. A funny feeling started to unfurl in my stomach, fear perhaps. “Yes, they’re all out back but you can’t go there. What does your dog look like? Tell me, I’ll get him for you.”

I described LT for him, “Black and white puppy, brown markings for eyebrows, floppy long ears. He’s very frisky, I’m sure you know him by now. Do you know which one I’m talking about?” He shrugged and went off without another word. My boss stepped out of his car; looking around while stretching his legs while I, leaned against the door waiting.

“So how did you find this place?” my boss asked looking on at the dilapidated white building curiously. 

“On the internet….” I replied while looking away. When the man came back, he had LT on a tight leash. Immediately the pup bounded towards me, yelping and howling; almost as if he was trying to relay a story.

My heart leapt into my throat upon seeing him. I realized I’d missed him more than I’d allowed myself to admit. 

I thought of Annie as he jumped into my waiting arms. His tail wagging and tongue ever ready to get in a sneaky lick of my faces. My boss seemed enthralled by him, and I felt proud of my dog.

Then the magic was shattered as he exclaimed, “Oh he’s covered in ticks!!” ‘What?!’ I thought, ‘How could he be, he’s in a three star motel!’ But indeed his little body had at least a million squirmy round brown insects stuck to it in various places. In some spots, more than one tick had gnawed on and was nestled in. Upon close inspection I saw other tell tale red bumps all over his belly and paws. Horrified, both of us moved away. Poor LT never knew why. He jumped back and forth between our horrified faces.

“Have you seen this before?” my boss asked, his face clouded in a judgmental mask. Speechless I shook my head, “No, actually this is the first I’ve had time to visit him, but this place has three stars! There must be some kind of mistake!”

“You must look into it, how irresponsible to just leave ‘it’ here...” He gestured towards LT, “Without checking the place out properly, I’m surprised at you!” I could feel his disapproval boring a hole through my head. Nodding I gathered little LT in my arms and a shudder ran down the length of my body as I thought of the insects that infested his. I walked towards the building, realising for the first time that I hadn’t even asked to see where he’d be kept.

The old man was promptly at the door before I could open it. “What are you doing? What did I say, you can’t come back here!” he shouted at me. Anger welled up inside me and I couldn’t take it anymore, I roared back; “What do you mean? Look at my dog.” I showed him LT’s belly, all the ticks latched on to its thin skin.

“How have you been keeping him? What is all this? I’ve been paying you good money to keep this dog safe. What kind of a person keeps a dog this way? Answer me!” I must been right at the top of the decibel range, because my boss came down the path to see what was going on. “What are you doing shouting at him like that?” He chastised me, “Can’t you see that he’s only an old man? If you have to ask anyone, ask the person who runs this place, haven’t you ever spoken to them?”

I had, once, on the phone. I had asked where I should drop LT. Dejectedly I apologized to the old man as my boss looked on at me in a mixture of, it seemed, pity and piousness. The old man, however, was not forgiving. “Get out! Get out right now with your mutt! I won’t be screamed at like this. I’ll tell the owners how you spoke to me. Go away right now!”

Not knowing what to do or what to say, I asked my boss for a ride home. He obliged on the condition that I keep LT in a cardboard box with a lid on it. He didn’t want any objectionable creatures to escape and ruin his leather seats. “Impossible to get rid of these things…” he muttered peevishly. Though as I found out later, quite rightly.

The ride home saw only a shamed silence. Any remarks from his end were disparaging and I knew better than to disagree with a man who signs my paychecks. “So irresponsible of you to just leave it there. I mean if you’re going to take a dog on, in Bombay, I’m not saying you should, with our schedules and all. It’s stretching yourself too thin. But if you want to, you must do it properly! I’m disappointed to say the least…” and so on, followed by silence on my part.

The building super saw me try to sneak LT in and gave me a dirty look, which I only acknowledged from the corner of my eye. I was playing ostrich I suppose, hoping not to be seen if I did not see. The rest of my night was spent bitterly cursing the super, the old man at the ‘dog motel’ and sometimes LT for he would squirm uncontrollably as I picked out the ticks from his body and drowned them into a waiting plastic mug.  Each tiny death rewarding me with brief snippets of control.

The next day, when my building super came and served me with a final notice, “Look I’m not a bad guy” he said, though I felt differently.  “These are the rules, I can’t break them for you. Please find a place for the dog. Either he goes or you both go!” I felt helpless and alone. I was at a complete loss now; it looked like little Tyson would have to go back to the animal shelter where he came from.

That weekend Annie came in as usual and upon seeing LT, she let out a shriek and started to play with him. They were so happy together that my dark mood stood out like a handful of thumbs. When Annie brought it up, I readily bawled out my plight.

“You were right about the kennel, I don’t know why I paid them,” I said to her. “I got him home last night, but already the building wants me to send him away, and I can’t find anyone to take him. The pound says they can’t keep him very long if he doesn’t find a home…and they say they’ll kick me out if I keep him here… and the truth is…I don’t want to go looking for another building…” 

Annie looked at me with gentle surprise and said, “Silly you are man! You’re worrying yourself over nothing! I told you my boys and I would love to have him! What could have changed?”

June 13, 2015

A 6000 day wait on justice: The Uphaar tragedy commiserations

A mother always remembers, Neelam Krishnamurthy had said two years – 730 days – ago. She had been talking about the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire in which her teenage daughter and her son died. It’s been 18 years since that fateful day but she still counts the days like an imprisoned person. “6570 days.” 

Krishnamurthy is one of many awaiting closure while Supreme Court deliberates the sentence to be given out to the real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal – the owners of Uphaar who were convicted for willful negligence causing death on March 5 last year. 

Another evidence tampering case against the Ansal brothers is pending before the Patiala House Courts Complex Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Sanjay Khanangal. The 56-year-old Krishnamurthy has never missed a single hearing in the case that’s stretched on for nine years.

“You would be my daughter’s age,” she can be heard telling the younger reporters who perchance upon her in the district courts.

Meanwhile SC continues to deliberate on the question of quantum of punishment to be given to the Ansal Brothers. It was sent to a larger Bench for determination last year.

The fire in Uphaar cinema located in South Delhi broke out during the screening of the movie Border. Fifty-nine corpses were recovered. Corners’ reports show that they suffocated to their deaths. During investigation it was revealed that the Ansals’ building did not comply with fire safety standards. One of the Fire Exits was blocked by extra seats, so the trapped victims could not get out of the burning hall.

“Members of the Association hope that the larger Bench would consider the enormity of the tragedy before deciding on the quantum of sentence. It is very evident from the findings of the Supreme Court that 59 invaluable lives were snuffed out due to wanton disregard of the statutes with the intention of making extra money rather than ensuring the safety of patrons. We also hope that the decision on the quantum of punishment is such that it would send a strong message to the occupiers and owners of public spaces that they cannot endanger human lives to fill their coffers,” AVUT (Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) president Krishnamurthy said.

On Saturday June 13, the AVUT will hold held a prayer meeting marking the 18 years which have passed since they lost their loved ones. 

They are demanding the sentence of the Ansal Brothers be decided by SC in an expeditious manner; they want the evidence tampering case in the district court to be finally heard. 

“It’s been “6570 days,” says Krishnamurthy speaking for all the living victims of the tragedy  “Don’t we deserve justice?”

(A shorter, modified, version of this article appeared in an edition of the Hindustan Times June 13, 2015 papers)

June 05, 2015

Bahadur Aur Beghar: No help for the Patiala House Court Complex's Nepali staff after Earthquake

Kishan Bahadur was a jolly, carefree soul. He's the first one telling a vakeelji who's lost his files to chill; the first to smile as you enter Patiala House court complex’s tension-drenched filing room. But since April 25, this year, Kishan Bahadur has become a different person.

He’s from Pokhara Village in Nepal, where a 7.8 Ritcher scale earthquake that hit the country last month destroyed 90% of the buildings. Kishan’s house — where his wife and two small children reside — was demolished he tells me. With a sigh of relief, he adds, no one was home at the time.

“My wife was at the neighbors, and the kids were in school. It’s only by pure luck and gods’ grace that I still have a family,” he explains.

He adds, "they don’t have a house to live in anymore and are staying with the neighnours.” He shrugs, but one can tell his pride is hurt -- he's the sort of man who believes in taking from no one.

Having no home to go back to is not the end of Kishan’s woes. Due to the sudden force majure, he also has no money for the trip home, or to fix the broken down building once he gets to his destination.

Being a proud Bahadur and has not yet asked the district judge in charge Amar Nath for help as of yet. Truth told, he confesses, he did not know asking the DJ for help was an option.

In fact, Kishan and others like him are worried that their pay will be affected if they go to Nepal during court working days. At the moment, lower court staff is only given a certain number of leaves, and anyone exceeding those gets a pay-cut.

Those Nepalis who have already used their limited number of paid holidays are not getting any concession to visit their homeland post-Earthquake.  With the typical Bahadur sense of humour he adds, the only good thing is that this happened at the beginning of the year, so not many have taken holidays yet.

Strapped for cash themselves, Kishan’s colleagues in the filing room are collecting money on his behalf. So far, ten people have contributed, and they have Rs. 2000 to give towards rebuilding a house whose value in memories cannot be quantified.

“Not a lot of the staff is being generous as well. I’ve contributed, some others have. Some know Kishan needs the money but ignore us. I mean how much can one go door to door also na?” one Reader tells me under the condition of anonymity.

There are at least 20 Pokhara villagers working as junior staff or menial labour in various district courts in Delhi. The overall count of Nepali workers within the city’s judicial system exceeds 100.

Tis Hazari court, which has about 50 Nepalis working in it has the largest number, closely followed by Saket court that employs 20 and Patiala House Court that employs 18-20 persons.

I spoke to a number of them from various district courts, and their situation was found to be similar, if not exactly, like Kishan’s story.

(This reportage is entirely in my personal capacity, has nothing to do with my employer, and was done on my own time. Any liability stemming from the same should be placed on me, and no one else.)

Ps- If you want to help Kishan and others like him, please go to the Court Staff Secretaries at the various district courts, and donate what you comfortably can to their cause. 

June 04, 2015

The law doesn't blame Madhuri for Maggi... even if you want to!

It was reported on Tuesday that an independent advocate has filed a case against actors Amitabh Bachhan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta who endorsed the household product we all grew up with — Maggi. 

The ‘two-minute’ noodles have been in the eye of the storm since it was revealed that several batches of their products across India contained dangerous levels of lead, which can be fatal. And now, so are the celebrities whose shining faces on silver screens told the rest of us to “Love Maggi.”

It cannot be questioned that celebrities are people who exert a lot of influence over the general public, and should exercise this power in a responsible, not reckless manner. 

According to the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) Act, anyone whomsoever is a party to a misleading advertisement or its publication can be fined up to Rs 10 lakh. 

In February, last year, the Central Consumer Protection Council (CCPC), the apex body for consumer protection in India, ruled that actors could be held liable for making “false claims” in advertisements and endorsing a product that they “know to be misleading.”

So, on the face of it, there seems a possibility that Bacchhan senior and the rest of Bollywood’s finest may be in a hot soup. But the CCPC was clear about one thing: these people can only be held accountable for endorsements or statements they made “recklessly” or if they had knowledge that the product was unsafe, or the advertisement claim false or misleading.

It all boils down to what lawyers call mens rea; and what we call intention. Did Amitabh know there was a high-lead percentage in Maggi noodles? Did Zinta? What about Madhuri? Did your local grocer know? Did the canteen-cook who gives you a plate during teatime every day? 

There is no belittling the role of celebrity endorsements in India —they account of half our country’s ads. Also, you don’t even need to be Indian to know the the influence a Bacchan exert on the country’s less educated population — which is, sadly, still in the majority. One can safely say, products can be moved on the basis of Madhuri’s smile alone. 

Yet, the law is clear — to be liable, they must have been reckless or had knowledge of their false claims. As of yet, there is no proof of either criteria applying to any of the stars.

If this were a case of deceptive advertising such as the infamous 2011 Reebook Easy Tone shoes controversy — where the company sold shoes based on claims that they would provide extra tone and strength to leg and buttock muscles — one may be tempted to hold the celebrities involved responsible. This is an easy fact-checkable claim; all the celebrity has to do is use the product for a few months. Voila! truth will reveal itself, the star could be said to have intention to deceive. 

Chillax,  Bipasha isn't going to be found liable either. She endorsed the product in 2009, and the company only started settling claims by 2011. (But, you -- who fell for that misassformation -- may get your money back.)

This is not even similar to the Home Trade scam of 2002 in which Sachin Tendulkar, Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan endorsed a company that created no products and scammed 1000s of crores of investor money. 

This is an issue with a food product, which we’ve all been using years before any of the three stars complained against began endorsing it. It is an issue that was only recently discovered by the Food Safety & Drug Administration in Uttar Pradesh.

There’s no doubt that having lead levels which are seven-times the permissible level in food which is marketed and sold to children is a serious matter. And if Maggi, or the endorsers had knowledge of this danger, they’re liable criminally, ethically, and morally. 

But as the law goes, that knowledge is key; and ignorance — in this case — can be bliss of the Bollywood trio. 

(These views above are my personal opinions, and do not represent - in any manner - the opinion of my employer, or media organisations association with me.)