Published in Countercurrent

Do these women have rights?

These women who break rocks
These women who carry bricks
These women who in Temples please Gods

What Gods?


Can they Me Too?

Farmers’ wives, sweepers,
Women who clean dirt
From homes and yet
Live in dirt themselves.
Women who could not go to school

Can they Me Too?

Women who remain
Unlettered, Unfed, Unclothed
Women whose children die before birth
from malnutrition
Women whose malnourished children stare bare-backed
and Beg at traffic junctions
Migrant labour — Women, Men, Children

Which of them have rights?

Poverty denies
Defies Pollution
Defies Education
Defies Wealth

Poverty has Beliefs, Rituals —

— Nebulous Gods and Goddesses—


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Waiting for the revolution…



It was the year 1989, a month after the Tianamen Square protests rocked the world.

Moyna’s uncle was angry.

“Does your father know that you are going to a mafia infested area to do your report?” Boro Pishe asked.

“It is a newspaper report,” Moyna explained for the umpteenth time. “My father knows I am doing the report. The Socialist will pay for the car I hire to go to the coal workers’ settlement and all other costs. You don’t need to worry!”

The Socialist was a major national newspaper. Moyna worked in the Delhi office as a reporter. She was taking a break to visit her aunt and uncle in Dhanbad. When Shyam Nagra, the assistant editor, heard she was going to Dhanbad, he asked her to do a follow-up story on a documentary that had focused on how a Harijan coal slurry worker had overcome the corrupt security forces to help improve the remuneration given to them.

Moyna was excited about it. But her uncle was not.

Boro Pishe said, “Nothing doing young lady. I will go with you to meet B. L. Sen. I am responsible for your safety while you are in Dhanbad. There is a whole mafia around this area that can finish you up. I will come with you this evening.”

Moyna and Boro Pishe went to BL Sen’s office. BL Sen was the local Marxist MP. The office was crowded but BL Sen made room for them.

“You see, the film was made a few years ago. The situation has reverted,” BLSen said. “The workers have again been subdued by the security forces. Not just that the mafia has become stronger and now takes a larger part of their income. The security also takes a share. So, the miners are left with less than one third of their daily wages.”

Moyna asked, “Is it possible for me to visit the settlement?”

“We will take you to where the workers live and the trade Union office. But be warned young lady, you can visit them only once for an hour or two and never return there again. You must collect all the information you need within that time. You can never go back because once the mafia knows; they will finish you, your camera and tape recorder. Also you must dress simply to blend in,” concluded BL Sen. He arranged to have Moyna escorted by one of his men two days later. They arranged a lunch for her with the trade union leaders.

Boro Pishe was dissatisfied with the development. He said, “You will not hire a car. I will use a rickshaw that day to go to work and my driver will take you and BL Sen’s men to the site.”

Moyna had no choice. She went with Mukund, the driver, and BL Sen’s escort, Babulal.

Moyna got off at the settlement from the car. Both Mukund and Babulal came with her. Boro Pishe had instructed Mukund not to leave her side for a minute.

Moyna  stared spellbound at the diorama that unfolded before her eyes.

Everything was black with coal dust, even the puddles and ponds of water around. Mal-nourished children with potbellies and scanty, torn clothing seemed to solidify out of the coal dust. They stared at her as she approached the settlement. Moyna was wearing a simple cotton saree and rubber slippers. But she felt overdressed. People here were in tatters and rags of the indistinct color of poverty. There were no voices or sounds in the settlement, only the eerie silence of spineless, abject sub-human existence. People lived only to breath, and eat if fortunate…

Babulal allowed her to pause and take pictures of a man taking out coal slurry from a black pond. She looked at her surroundings. She had never in her life seen anything like this.

Everything was black and shades of black, coloured by the fine grains of coal from deep within the bowels of Earth. People had no houses. They lived in shelters made with tarpaulin stretched on sticks. There were not even thatched huts. Children stared at her, as did men and women.

“Is this how the workers live?”

“Yes. They come from a number of villages to work here.” responded Babulal.

“Do they have electricity and water?”

Babulal looked at her amused.

“No. They do not have water and electricity where they stay. They lead a hand to mouth existence.”

“Then what do they drink?”

“There is a tube well a little further on.”

“Do they not fall sick?”

“Yes, they do and they die also but they have no alternative.”

“What is their average life expectancy?”

“We have never done a survey… but most of them die before they turn thirty because of the coal dust they inhale. Come let us move forward to the trade union office.”

The three intruders moved ahead.

Moyna wanted to help but had no idea how and dared not ask. “My god, how lucky am I,” she thought. “And how sad that people had to live like this in the twentieth century! How can people tolerate others living like this?”

The trade union office was a shabby brick building. They sat on the floor and ate half cooked lamb with Moyna. She was the VIP visitor and they showered their warmth on her. Moyna was touched.

She interviewed the people identified by BLSen’s workers and recorded their statements. She had to leave within an hour and a half as Babulal pointed out that the mafia or security forces would soon be coming around.

As Moyna lay down in the air-conditioned comfort of her uncle’s guest room that night, she was thinking that today she had seen another world, a world perhaps that she would never had known existed…Her Boro Pishe had been very solicitous towards her welfare, she knew. But the reality remained that the India of the coal slurry workers was different from any other India she knew…

Their protest had been subdued. They had been quenched to become subservient commodities for their masters, thought Moyna ruefully. Their life expectancy continued at less than thirty years as opposed to India’s 57.47 years in 1989. And people just accepted it! Most of the workers were illiterate. Educated Indians spoke of the need for freedom of speech in her world and protested everything possible but in the settlement, where a revolution might have helped them survive decently, the workers’ voices had been silenced, their spines broken. Some of them did not even want to speak.

Perhaps, it was the year of quenched protests… Tianamen and then these coal workers,  Moyna cogitated as she turned off her bedside lamp. She wondered how many of these workers understood independence and freedom and had benefitted by it…yet they voted? Could they even think about freedom as they were driven to battle for survival on a daily basis? Was living like these workers better than dying? Why did the workers not protest? Why did people tolerate the mafia? Why did the government give in? Moyna slowly drifted off to sleep thinking on these issues.

It was 2017, the year when China had surged ahead. The Tianamen incident had been forgotten and forgiven. It had drifted to an insignificant corner of the past…

Moyna woke from her afternoon siesta and her housekeeper asked, “Tea, madam?”

Moyna nodded in affirmation.

Moyna lived in Singapore now. She was over fifty and had two children. Her sons had seen more of the rest of the world and less of India…

Her younger son came and said, “ Mamma do you have a spare earphone? I ripped mine again today.”

Moyna went inside to rummage her desk for an earphone. Her old portfolio got dislodged and fell out. The article on the coal mine workers fell to the floor. Moyna picked it up and looked at it. She showed it to her son. She told him how this article had won her kudos and a scholarship to a postgraduate course in a European university. The university had kept the article as part of their resource material in their library.

“Mamma why did the university keep it as their resource material?” asked her thirteen-year-old son.

Moyna said, “I don’t know… I wonder too.” She replaced the article in her portfolio. Her son wanted to read her old articles. She gave him her portfolio and walked to her balcony and sat down as her housekeeper brought in her tea. Moyna took a sip and started thinking of what had been.

She recalled how she had found it difficult to stomach the attitude of the professor at the European university. He insisted that their way was the best for third world countries to step out of poverty. Moyna had not agreed. Firstly, she hated the term third world. They were developing countries…there were so many differences she had… Moyna felt the best way to move forward was defined by the indigenous people themselves and their needs and not by the needs defined by other people. The need to move forward had to come from within. That could only come when the basic needs hunger, shelter and education were resolved…

Moyna had returned after she completed her course on Economic Development Studies and continued working for the newspaper till she fell in love, tied the knot with her husband and moved out of India.

Today as she stood watching the waves ripple across the water body in front of her home, she wondered, had she done the right thing submitting that report for her scholarship? Why did the university need a resource material like that…? She had never understood the reason…

She wondered did the settlement still exist? What were the worker’s living conditions? She googled the name of the settlement on  her mobile but drew a blank…

The needs of those workers were so different from hers. She remembered that

Moyna could not bear to look at beggars and poverty but what was she doing about it?

Moyna fell into a reverie.

Could she ever do anything for the poor? Could anyone do anything for them? Why did most people in India accept the state of things, including poverty and lack of education, as they were? Why is it all people did not still have access to housing, food, clean water, electricity and good roads?

What was this apathy?

Why were the basic needs so hard to meet for some countries and so easy for others?

Her husband’s voice jerked her back to the present reality. “A penny for your thoughts. What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking of the past… wondering what good did I do by going to the coal mines and writing about it…?” Moyna replied.

“The exposure taught you many things and you have brought up compassionate children… is that a small thing?”

“But I could do nothing to help improve their lot….”

“How do you know your article did not help the people who were trying to bring a positive change in the condition of the workers? At least it raised awareness about the plight of the workers among the readers…”

Moyna smiled. “You are trying to placate me. Come let us eat dinner.”



The Creators





Jamie woke up like he did on a daily basis to the sound of the six o clock wake up siren that day. The sky was grey outside as it was everyday. There were no bird calls… Only the blaring voice from the speaker:

“Hup, two, three, four…

Quickly run out of your door.

Come out and stretch,

It’s time to wake up and fetch.”

Every morning the loudspeakers blared this rhyme repeatedly. The citizens of Aurica were expected to file out of their homes and do stretching exercises at the start of each day.

The Earth had been divided into four zones after the Third World War. Aurica was one of the zones. Countries no longer existed. Some of the smaller landmasses had gone under water due to global warming and climate change. Blasts from nuclear weaponry had destroyed large parts of the Earth. Lot of the tracts were unusable from contamination. The number of people had also become a quarter of what the population was in the 1990s, when they had the war. Everyday, somebody died of diseases borne of lack of hygiene, new unexplored viruses, contamination and more bomb blasts.

The four zones were always at war for possession of the contaminated landmasses. People lived in broken, old quarters. Only the ruling classes lived in luxury.

Jamie lived in a dilapidated hostel for young people. It used to be a beautiful housing complex before the war. The bomb blasts had reduced large parts of it to rubble. Plants and vegetables only flourished in some parts of the countryside left untouched by nuclear radiation. Food was always scarce.

Jamie was a scrawny, underfed man of 25 years of age. He wore thick glasses as his eyesight was weak. He was always hungry for food. If it had not been for some of the fantastic dreams he had been having, he would be very miserable indeed. He hated the war. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, he felt Aurica had seen better days before the bombs wiped out not only large tracts of land but technology for the benefit of mankind. It had wiped out books and education. The rulers rewrote history for the benefit of retaining their power and stronghold over people. Democracy gave way to tyranny. The only technologies that survived were for making weapons. Everything seemed to be covered by grey ashes … Or was it dust from the polluted air?

Jamie, like many others in Aurica had this persistent cough. As he rushed out into the courtyard with a stream of young people for his morning stretches, he was thinking of the strange dream he had last night. In the dream, he was riding on a white fluffy cloud with a girl with a pale face and black hair. The girl looked a bit like him. At the end of the distant sky was a rainbow. As they drew closer to the rainbow, the sky turned red and gold. Below was a huge water body with a tiny boat on it. Beyond he could see some strange green vegetation on an island… The dream was absurd. How could you ride a cloud and who would go with him? Most of his comrades regarded him as a freak. They tolerated him out of pity. He knew he was a little different. Sometimes, he felt he could hear what others were thinking. But, he dared not mention it to any other Aurican. Exceptions were never tolerated well in Aurica. Mediocrity flourished.

“Jamie, be focused! Stretch your arms up in the air and jump!” blared the voice of the community leader from the loudspeaker. A community leader led all the group activities in each of the residential communes, including the morning exercises.

Jamie as usual was wandering off in his mind. He quickly closed his mind to the dream and started on the stretches. He had to be at work within the next two hours. He worked at a weapon’s factory. He used to help operate a robot to assemble some parts of a gun. There were ten in his group. Now, about five men did the job of what had been done in the past by one man. The number of jobs had reduced as a result of the ongoing wars, it was given out. The salary was split proportionately. This way everybody had enough to fund their own food and clothing need. Every person needed to work to get his ration of food, clothing and shelter.

Children were community property. They did not live with their biological parents. In fact, they were not given a chance to know their biological parents. There was no concept of a family. Children were trained to fit into appropriate slots in the society. They were taught to be cannon fodder and tote guns from the age of seven and given some basic training in reading, writing and arithmetic.

Jamie had a premonition that something strange would happen that day as he put on his clothes and ate his ration of watery oats and salt. He had it mixed with the ounce of milk that was a part of the morning ration. He downed his meager meal with some watery tea. Coffee was served only on festive occasions. Jamie sometimes felt that there was a time people could have plenty…but where and when and how… He did not know.

Jamie went to work.

“Look at the nerd! He is gaping more than usual,” shouted their group leader, Broadie, as Jamie clocked in with his card. Broadie was the ideal male, strong, big with a bull like neck. He had a ruddy face and was always nasty to Jamie. He smelt of sweat and grime. Broadie started making goldfish-like movements with his mouth, pretending to imitate Jamie. Jamie kept quiet and went ahead with his task. He had a long and trying morning.

In Aurica, the workday lasted for only four hours as the second shift came in after lunch. This way double the number of workers had jobs and the problems caused by unemployment were whittled down. Though jobs were fewer than before, more workers had jobs and all lived just above the brink of poverty. The workers were always worried about surviving bomb blasts and having enough to eat and live. Jobs were determined by the community’s need. Passions, thought or creativity was a thing of the past. People out of the ordinary were regarded as freaks.

When Jamie clocked out at 1 pm in the afternoon, he was glad to leave. However, instead of going for lunch and then for a group activity as he was expected to do, he went for a walk. In Aurica, four hours were spent at work and the rest of the day in doing community service or some other group activity. You could choose what you wanted to do. The norm was to be with a big group of people all the time. Going for a walk in the countryside or what was left of it was considered freakish.

Jamie felt he could hear a voice calling out to him and telling him where to go. He walked out of the city and towards the country with its grey soil and scrubby vegetation. The sky continued grey.  People had almost disappeared from the lonely countryside. Suddenly, at a distance, he could see some strange figures. They were wearing masks. In the afternoon light, he noticed two of the figures wore shower caps on the head too. They seemed to be moving towards him. There was nowhere to hide. Jamie started feeling a little apprehensive. Who were theses strangers? The voice in his head was asking him not to be scared and to go towards the little group.

The group moved forward towards him. As they neared him, one of the girls took off her mask and cap. She was the girl of his dreams, the one he rode on the cloud with.

The girl came forward and said: “Hi! My name is Jasmine. I would like you to meet my friends.”

He stared at her nonplussed and open mouthed. He looked ready to faint for fear. Here was a beautiful girl inviting him to meet her friends!

Then he noticed a strange creature peeping from behind the girl. It was JaJa.

“Who are you and what is that?!! Who are you all? Why are you calling out to me?” shouted Jamie in fear.

Jamie was wondering if he should run away from the bizarre group even though the voice in his head was trying to calm him and asking him to stay.