Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Responsible Tourism: Te Aroha sets an example

Set in the sleepy little village of Dhanachuli in Kumaun, Uttarakhand, Te Aroha, with its yellow roofs, stands out. With tastefully done interiors and beautiful landscaping, the resort is different from any other resort I have visited so far -- and in more ways than one.

Let us start with the name "Te Aroha". It means "the mountain of love" or "the loved one". And when you meet the man behind the resort, Sumant Batra, you fully appreciate why he chose this name.  More than business, Te Aroha is his passion. Each corner of the resort echoes this, and you can see how much love he has put into chalking out minutest of the details. The resort is named after the mountain of the same name in New Zealand. Click here to read the complete legend behind the name.

Sumant was generous enough to invite some bloggers to Te Aroha for a bloggers meet this month. We stayed there from October 4 to October 6, 2013. During these three days, we got ample opportunity to grill him thoroughly on various fronts. And he patiently answered all our questions. While a detailed travelogue will follow, I want to dedicate this post to the aspect that touched me the most.

 (From left to right: Mukta, Aanchal, Divya, Sumant, and me; VJ was clicking this photograph)

Sumant is a lawyer by profession and stays in Delhi. He was born in Hissar and spent much of his life in Chandigarh. In spite of hailing from the plains, he is incredibly sensible towards the entire ecosystem of the hills. Here are a few examples:

Building material: Wood rafters and boards are used in plenty in Te Aroha, instead of concrete and cement. The resort therefore appears to be at home in the hills and is spacious. It appears to preside over the hills instead of overshadowing them.

Water supply: Te Aroha does have a connection to the water supply provided by the government and they do pay the bill every month, but they do not use this water. Why? The reason is that if the resort starts using the water, the villagers won't get any. So, from where do they get their water? They harvest rain water and they have also installed their own borer machine to harvest groundwater.

Entertainment options:  The USP of Te Aroha and Dhanachuli is how easy it is to cut oneself off from the world. The rooms do not have TV and the resort does not offer a DJ for bonfires. If you have come searching for peace and quiet, you will find them here easily. For your entertainment, the resort's library contains an interesting selection of books. Or, you can sit around the bonfire on a clear night and count the shooting stars while sipping wine.  

Overall development of the area: During our frequent discussions, it became clear that Sumant has much more than business on his mind when he thinks of Dhanachuli. He is concerned about the local trade, the local people, and the local heritage of Dhanachuli and also of Uttarakhand as a whole. After the June floods when the tourists retreated, the morale of the local people dipped. Most of them had lost their only source of income -- and the irony is that most of the state had actually remained unaffected by the floods. Sumant has actively been trying to bring the tourists back to Uttarakhand, and the blogger's meet he hosted was a part of that initiative. In fact, during these tough times when the hotels in Uttarakhand had to deal with 100% cancellation, several resorts let go of most of their staff. However, Te Aroha was one of the resorts that chose to keep all of their employees on board in spite of the lack of business. Sumant is also very concerned about littering and lack of upkeep of heritage buildings in the area. He is always thinking of ways to impact these positively.

This was my impression of Te Aroha and Sumant. In the next few posts, I will open more windows into our experience of Te Aroha and Dhanachuli. There will be some nice stories and a lot more pictures for you to enjoy! But for now, it is enough to say that one can either step on everyone's head and reach the top, or one can choose to grow organically along with everyone else around us. While the first approach may get you faster results, the second approach will result in a healthier society. I am glad that more and more people are choosing the second approach. It can only mean positive things for our country. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Who will ensure justice for Nirbhaya?

Photo courtesy Vaishali Ahuja
My blog was silent on Nirbhaya rape case so far. In fact, my pen and my muse were both numb and paralyzed with thoughts too complicated for me to comprehend or explain. I was hurt -- I felt unbearable pain for the girl, her family, her friend, and all those who had known her and had to see her lose her battle for life in such a painful manner. I also felt cheated and confused. It was so hard to believe that the country I so vehemently defended when anyone dared to criticize it could allow such cruelty to happen. There was so much I wanted to say through these last few months, but I couldn't bring myself to write a word about it -- or for that matter -- about anything. 

It is said that shock treats shock. When the Juvenile Justice Board found the "juvenile" accused guilty of the heinous crime, and yet couldn't sentence him to more than 3 years of confinement, I knew I had to write about it. I do not want to rant about how unjust this is, for it is a given. She is dead, but he will be out and about in the society once again in a few years. He gets another chance at life in spite of the iron rod he shoved into the girl. Did he wince even once when he did that? Has he shown even a slightest sign of remorse? What makes us think that the confinement will reform him? Are we actually this foolish? In fact, I shudder when I imagine the unfeeling, unashamed look he will carry in his eyes when he gets out. Most girls would know the look I am talking about. It is all too familiar -- like the look in the eyes of men who all too often take advantage of a crowded bus to molest young girls and old women alike. 

The juvenile accused will know that he got away. Countless other such "juveniles" will also know that he got away. By not treating this case as an exception, our judiciary has set a sad example for our society. Just like there is provision of capital punishment in the rarest-of-the-rare cases, why can't there be a similar provision in case of juveniles? It is difficult to have faith in such a helpless system. And, as if on cue, a series of rape cases have been reported from all over the country.

Our society desperately needs examples. People need to be afraid of committing crimes. With the moral fibre of our society in tatters, and "blame the victim" attitude on an all-time-high especially in case of rape, this seems to be the only way out. It is easy for men, who take freedom for granted, to advise women to avoid being "at the wrong place at the wrong time." But isn't it true that women wouldn't have come this far if they had chosen to stay within the "safe" limits? At one point, any place outside home was the "wrong" place for women. Generations of men and women have fought against this and pushed the boundary wider and wider. And we should keep pushing till this boundary ceases to exist. No one should so flippantly advise women to let go of their hard-earned freedom for the fear of the perverts who are out there threatening their very existence. 

Now Nirbhaya's parents have indicated that they will move the Delhi High Court against this sentence. They should know that the entire nation is standing with them in this. Nirbhaya didn't give up, and neither will we.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Must Visit - Reimaging: The People of India (1850-2013)

Anthropology owes a lot to photographers, who have played a very important role, intentionally and unintentionally, in documenting not only history and nature, but also society and culture. When photography was introduced in India, the photographers were British and some of the pictures they clicked are incredible reflections of their understanding of the Indian Society at that time.

However, society has evolved and the old definitions of caste have changed considerably. And, therefore, it is but logical that these changes be captured and documented with a fresh perspective. And the exhibition "Reimaging: The People of India (1850-2013)" takes several interesting steps in this direction.

The exhibition was inaugurated yesterday and will be on till 26 April 2013 at India International Centre. Timings are from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. The exhibition showcases several extraordinary portraits and compositions by Dinesh Khanna, Dileep Prakash, Mahesh Bhat and Sandeep Biswas - curated by Aditya Arya - that provide a rare insight into the various classes of contemporary Indian Society. Also on display are rare albumin prints from 1850, which provide an interesting contrast to the contemporary photographs. The exhibition is educating and enriching. If you can take out a couple of hours, I would definitely recommend a visit to the gallery.

Click here for more details: Reimaging: The People of India (1850-2013)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Manovikas-IGNOU Community College - People who chose to take action

When I was invited to the Ist Convocation Ceremony for the students of Manovikas-IGNOU Community College for Developmentally Delayed, I was delighted. In the past as well, I have attended events where Manovikas, founded by Dr. Alok kumar "Bhuwan", played an important role and I have always come back enriched and humbled. So I was looking forward to this event. 

The convocation took place in the India International Centre on January 13th, 2013 at 1:45 PM. The event started with invocation of "Om Tat Sat", which means "Supreme Absolute Truth", or more literally "all that is". This was followed by a beautiful dance performance by the students of the Community College. The theme of the dance was National Intergrity and the unity amongst all religions. Through this dance performance, I got the first glimpse into what these children were actually capable of. I was touched by their elegance and grace.

On the dais, sat eminent people from various walks of life. Mr. Arvinder Singh Lovely, Revenue Minister, Delhi Government was the Chief Guest at the convocation. He was joined by Mrs. Stuti Narain Kacker, IAS, Secretary, Disability Division, Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment; Dr. G. Narayan Rao, Chairman and Managing Director, ALIMCO and NHFDC; Padma Shri Dr. Uma Tuli, former Chief Commissioner of Disability GOI; Mrs. Aruna Dalmaia founder Chair of Akshay Pratishthan; Mrs. Poonam Natarajan, Chairperson, National Trust; Prof. Dr. P.R. Ramanujam, Pro Vice-Cancellor, IGNOU; and Mr. Chris Sims, Manipal Global, City & Guilds. Mr. Vikram Dutt, Chairman, Manovikas-IGNOU Community College and Dr. Alok Kumar "Bhuwan", the founder of Manovikas, joined the guests on the dais. Most of these people have devoted their entire lives in making a difference to other people's lives. 

However, the real stars of the event were the children for whom this was the day that would mark their stepping into the world as independent employable young people and their parents who have stood by their wards through all achievements and disappointments, without wavering from their stands. Here's one beautiful quotation dedicated to them:

"Anyone can give up, it's the easiest thing in the world to do.  But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that's true strength." - Author Unknown. 

The ceremony started with the welcome note by Mr. Vikram Dutt and talking about the Community College he said, "Respect is achieved through learning, activities, social skills by being good at what you do, by conducting yourself professionally and above all, by having the capacity to earn in the bazaar that is LIFE! So at Manovikas we pondered long and researched what courses of study to adopt and then pursue that would enable every disable person passing through our portals to meet these goals."

The convocation ceremony was emotional and humbling. Seeing each student being escorted up to the dais to receive their certificates and to know that if not for this college, society would probably have marginalized these persistent, intelligent, and dedicated students, was an eye-opener. Many schools offer special classes for students with development disabilities, but few think beyond making them self-sufficient at home. The fact that several students of the Community College are now employed or are on their way towards getting a job indicates that our society has taken a few baby steps towards the economic empowerment of the marginalized. Gaurav, who is currently employed at Haldiram, and Saurav, who works at Barista, are signs that there is hope, solely because of people who choose to take responsibility rather than look the other way. 

After the convocation, several awards were distributed amongst the students. Some of the awards and their winners are:

  • Dr. Reeta Peshwaria Memorial Award: Ms. Shweta Taing, Hospitality training programme   
  • The Outstanding Achievement Award:  Mr. Dhruv Ahuja, Office Attendant Training programme

Manovikas Trophies winners are:
  • Lal Advani Memorial trophy for best overall student: Ankur Khanna
  • Tishya Raina Memorial Trophy for the best all round student: Riya Saini
  • Indira Mathur Memorial Trophy for the best inmate in the Living Centre: Harish Vij
  • Sujata Maskra Memorial Trophy for academics and functional skills: Soham Deb
  • Shobhanand and Deonarayan Trophy for vocational skills: Rajiv Duggal
  • Sai Trophy for the student with best social skills: Gaurav Bansal
  • Natraj Trophy for the best student in cultural activities: Riya Singh
  • Mohammed. Ali Memorial Trophy for sports: Abhishek Chadha
  • Valentine Trophy for the most affectionate student: Tushar Jain

The event ended with the closing notes by the dignitaries. 

Professor P.R. Ramanujam, who himself is a wonderfully rehabilitated man after a severe polio attack when he was just 15 months old, acknowledged the parents of the disabled children (he expressed his disagreement with the term "differently abled" as according to him, every one is differently abled) for "their struggle and perseverance." He also added that completely unnecessary and useless negative procedures keep us busy 90% of the time. If we show restraint and control over our individual egos, we can progress. 

Mrs. Stuti Narain Kacker acknowledged the innovation of certification. She, however, stressed upon the need for economic empowerment, which leads to self-esteem. She acknowledged the courses offered by the community college and said that "they have matched the requirements of the industry and the training that needs to be given."

For reference, Manovikas-IGNOU Community College currently offers the following courses for disabled students and school dropouts:

  • Certificate in Basic Business Program 
  • Certificate in Office Attendant Training Programme
  • Certificate in Retail Assistant Programme 
  • Personal Management
  • Certificate in Hospitality Training Programme
  • Certificate in Peer Sexuality Tutor 
For more information regarding eligibility and dates, please refer to Courses Offered by the Community College.

The ceremony ended with the ceremonial hat toss and even though all of this happened yesterday, but something changed for me forever. I have new respect for people like Mr. Vikram Dutt and Dr. Alok Bhuwan. They are the people who rather than pointing at the others, don responsibilities and are the source of change.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 Nights by Vipul Rikhi: Stories that make you think

Even though the book is categorized under short stories, it has a very strong central narrative that runs through these short stories and connects each to another. All tales in the book pivot around the narrator's crumbling life in the backdrop of the seemingly inevitable disintegration of the entire realm of existence. The drunk narrative sucks the reader into its hallucinatory vortex and relentlessly makes one confront the very real questions one would rather avoid. The imagery used is powerful, disturbing, and beautiful at the same time. 

2012 Nights by Vipul Rikhi

The themes that the stories and the central narrative touches are at the core of many problems plaguing the world today. Without being didactic or preachy, the author effectively makes the readers stop in their paths and wonder about where the world is coming from and where it is headed.

Even though the book is a serious work and deals with serious topics, the author's matter-of-fact vocal tone is refreshing and provides a much-needed relief. In spite of constantly dealing with darkness, the book manages to make you smile at many places. Casual mentions of the state-of-art technologies such a Google Maps in the midst of powerful, fable-like tales and other such cheeky play of words spring a surprise upon you when you least expect and prevent the weighty narrative from becoming overwhelming.

I would recommend that you read this book if you appreciate the fragility and intricacy of layered writings and enjoy making the journey through these layers to reach the crux of the matter.