Conversations with Cabbies: Delhi Edition

Just met a super courteous elderly Sikh man Sukhdev Singhji in Nehru Place after our biannual health screening, who drove us home. He broke bread with Sir Ben Kingsley during the making of Gandhi and Satyajit Ray during ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ as he worked for the producer of these films. He drove for 8.5 years on behalf of the Embassy of Western Sahara. We were discussing Polisario Movement and Magrebi Colonial Politics driven by phosphorus during the 15 minute drive. Some days do make me wonder about the sheer wealth of understanding academic life outside the ivory tower of Commercialization. 13912303_10209515296546991_5143950716427599829_n

An unlikely Social Justice Narrative : ‘Kabali’ Tales

Kabali is a film that tries to engage the minority Tamil diaspora issues in Malaysia, especially the former plantation worker community who are disenfranchised from the mainstream racial politics in Malaysia as they are the subaltern without education and jobs, driving them to the underbelly of crime in Malaysia. Rajnikanth acting as the gangster messiah of the Malaysian Tamil Hindu community, plays on stereotypes and the lowest common denominator emotion of the macha (colloquial Tamil for the friendly neighborhood boy ) in Port Klang. The Tamil Movie Industry with this gamble of picking up a diaspora topic for a megastar film starring Rajni Sarr, has moved on from Jaffna Tamil Politics of Mani Ratnam Cinema to a safer Malaysia which is a lucrative market for the industry.

I applaud the social justice driven dalit subaltern political impulse of Director Pa Ranjith which has got a huge megaphone for an outlet; the reason why Ambedkar wore suits vis-a-vis a Gandhi as a statement of resistance against subaltern nature of existence is the same reason why the character Kabali wears it as well. The structural inequalities of the Malaysian Indian Community are depicted, in that sense this film brings the issues to the Indian living room such as teen age pregnancies and crime. On the cinematic method side, Kabali is an excruciating slow film, with a smattering of Bahasa Melayu and Mandarin making it ‘Truly Malaysia’ story. A through and through film for the die-hard Rajni fan, it stood out for its flawed depiction of its minority politics than anything else. This film attempts to bridge labor activism with racial politics under a post-colonial cloud.

It is now time to watch Jagat, a smaller budget Malaysian Tamil Film (a rare effort by Director Sanjhey Kumar Perumal, who took a decade to make a film) on a similar theme, far less popular, due to the indie character of the film. Kabali has indeed brought the Malaysian Indian community more traction than any other creative initiative earlier. A very clever film which has balanced politics in a commercial warp, with the masala entertainer of a Rajni Film. A job very well implemented Mr. Ranjith.

Why Social Justice work matters

In January 2015, I went on from being a petroleum industry consultant in Oman and India to a migration and health research lead position driving mini projects within a research program to bring issues of food security and migration experience issues with the Bangladeshi community in Singapore. This was my first formal brush with social justice activist leanings, as the earlier NGO/Social Innovation work I was leading was incremental rather than disruptive particularly in the area of communication and strategy. This experience in engaging with platforms such as AKM Mohsin’s Banglar Kantha and BoP Hub, led me to find out my strengths in working with communities. I just wish I had written more academically with my mentor Prof Mohan J Dutta at the National University of Singapore!

I hope to visit places in India and Singapore to meet peers and friends to take the conversation further whenever possible! Social Justice issues matter, as much as a check and balance mechanism in day to day life.

Migrant Workers as Cultural Practitioners: Singapore’s new ‘in-thing’

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Cultural Conversations at Dibashram

May Day Celebration`16_Photro Exibition

Poet Dr Gwee Sui Li opening a May Day photo exhibition

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Mr. A K M Mohsin speaking about Dibashram’s work at Bicara Titian Budaya, a SG50 celebration event in December 2015

Singapore is a hub of economic activity in this region, with one of the highest Gross Domestic Product in Asia. Migrant workers from South Asia have been attracted to Singapore for its proximity to home geographically and due its higher pay compared to the Persian Gulf.

Migrants from South Asia in particular from Bangladesh are bred in a rich cultural milieu as the descendants of the artistic legacy of Kazi Nazrul Islam and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.  A normal Bangladeshi school going child composes poetry and song as a way of living due to the environmentally varied nature of the country rather than a special subject at school. Thousands of Bangladeshi Workers make Singapore their temporary home as guest workers to make their living. Half of them have a school-leaving certificate and a small number of them possess diplomas and college degrees.

These brothers often work at 18 dollars basic per day building and maintaining Singaporean Infrastructure in grueling sun and torrential rain. They have a voice which is stifled by structural constraints such as lack of fluency in English and being at the bottom of the labor hierarchy holding work permits, often at the mercy of the employer’s whims and fancies as their visa can be cancelled anytime. An average migrant in the construction and shipyard sector makes about 600 to 700 dollars per month. Often his salaries are not paid in time and take a minimum of two years to pay back the economic cost of migration back home.

I observe a lot of migrant related activity (if not activism) over the past one year in Singapore, with plenty of events, competitions and citizen centric engagements, which brings the migrant regularly back into the mainstream conversation. Most of these events are kind, create mini celebrities out of migrant brothers, who release books, music cds and perform in theatrical plays. We ‘like’ them on social media, sometimes without realizing that many of these brothers have attended college, and have been performing/published artistes back home. They are made migrants due to economic realities back home. I am fortunate to know them in person and is a delight interacting. They are also normal writers and artists who are innovative in plying their trade and have a day job to pay their bills. Many of the strategic diasporic elites do that too, right?

A lot of these famous migrants are nurtured by Mr AKM Mohsin, Editor of Singapore’s only Bengali Language newspaper Banglar Kantha and Founder of Migrant Cultural Space Dibashram who started off as a pioneer helping out migrants in the early 1990’s writing letters for migrants back home. He then started a community paper in 2006, to serve as the voice of the diasporic subaltern. His platform has helped catalyze the Migrant Poetry Competition and Migrant Awareness Week among other events.

Migrant Poets such as  TEDXSingapore Speaker Zakir Hossain and newly minted author Md Mukul are products of the Banglar Kantha platform. They are invited to be toast of town at Poetry events at Artistry, a chic downtown cafe and national poetry festivals. This celebration is needed but how much of this celebration is helping redeem real issues such as injury claims and unpaid salaries?

Migrant literature as a genre promoted by Mr Mohsin and his cultural group Banglar Kantha Literary Association is a long term effort even when the spotlight was not shining. Migrant culture is a long term endeavor with sweat and toil, with lots of personal sacrifices with financial hits and burning volunteer weekends rather than one event every year for publicity sake.

Migrant activism should create space for silent conversations through cultural mediation rather a tick the box measure.

Artists as Migrants in Singapore

I observe a lot of migrant related activity (if not activism) over the past one year in Singapore, with plenty of events, competitions and citizen centric engagements, which brings the migrant regularly back into the mainstream conversation. Most of these events are kind, create mini celebrities out of migrant brothers, who release books, music cds and perform in theatrical plays. We ‘like’ them on social media, sometimes without realizing that many of these brothers have attended college, and have been performing/published artistes back home. They are made migrants due to economic realities back home. I am fortunate to know them in person and are a delight interacting. They are also normal writers and artists who are innovative in plying their trade and have a day job to their bills. Many of the strategic diasporic elites do that too, right?

Why Mr Pai is Wrong?

The JNU+FTII+HCU episode is an attempt to reduce students as ’employees’ and ‘consumers’ and not nurture citizens who should understand and aspire for a better polity. Anyone with activist leanings is labelled as ‘non-employable’ borrowing from Mr Ratan Tata as his/her spirit needs to be subjugated to the majoratarian narrative in order to work. The contrarian spirit is essential for innovation. Make in India needs ‘ignited minds’ in the words of late President APJ Abdul Kalam.

This sentiment connects with the entirely bogus conversation on liberal arts majors being not market worthy and wasting taxpayer rupees/dollars. In the words of Mr Mohandas Pai in a NDTV article, activist students waste money and the subsidies are for education. According to Mr Pai students are supposed to treat their opportunity at JNU as a social elevator and train themselves to be call centre workers. Tax payer cash is not only the perogative of supposedly more productive STEM majors, who will be ‘Bangalored’ for fulfilling headcount for North American IT Outsourcing Project. 

The average student at JNU would not be able to pay the fees at Manipal Education which he is chairman at. Kanhaiya, an aaganwadi workers son, was reading his PhD as Umar. JNU is very competitive to enter, and fortunately not the same as Manipal and as competitive as an IIT/IIM. Mr Ratan Tata, as per his logic should shut down TISS, one of the best social science institutions that bears the Tata brand. The positive from this episode is raised conciousness regarding nationalism and identity.

Questioning the status quo for the better is nationalism.

‪#‎Vemula‬ ‪#‎JNU‬

Navigating migration through language

Language is the first barrier for a migrant as soon one lands up and clears passport control in an alien land. For a migrant from the hinterland of South Asia, English is familiar but not a friend; and English becomes a cultural resource, and a tool for survival.

The local variant of English makes the language known to the migrant familiar. ‘Singlish’ is a bridge between the local population and the migrant. I have met migrants who speak fluent ‘Singlish’ as having lived in the island for a long time. The lack of knowledge of the language, becomes a constraint in communicating with their bosses, public sector agencies and the wider community in their everyday life.

When a migrant does not have an understanding of English, he forfeits the ability to convey the symptoms of his sickness to the doctor, or standing up to the unfair behaviour from the superiors.

The things that we take for granted such as writing a letter, is a matter of life and death for the migrant.  Due to this communicative inequity, the worker’s contract is substituted without his knowledge and legal papers are being forced upon his throat, as he does not understand the language of power, the Lingua Franca called English.

I would like to illustrate a case in point, a migrant brother known as Sromik Monir, a poet with the Bengali Language Literary Group ‘Banglar Kantha Cultural Foundation’ communicates with his superiors and fellow workers in Chinese; the language which he had to learn upon landing in Singapore from Bangladesh as most of his fellow workers are from China.

There are Bangla to Chinese Language books available in the community grocery shops in the mini Bangladesh neighbourhood of Desker Road and Rowell Road. They call their  all powerful Chinese bosses as ‘Long Chong’ which has entered the local lexicon of the migrant.

Banglar Kantha, the local Bengali Language newspaper in Singapore publishes a section in the paper on learning the English language. Singaporean Social Enterprise Social Development Initiative conducts English Language Classes for the migrant community. Other Non Profits/Faith Groups also conduct similar language classes for the respective community groups for migrants.

This will be thus truly, empowerment through language.









Mobile, Mustafa and the Migrant in Singapore: Side-notes from the Globalization Narrative

It was a crowded Sunday evening (as usual) in Singapore’s Little India area at one of the major bus stops perpendicular to the iconic Mustafa Centre on Syed Alwi Lane, the retail cathedral of the South Asian Migrant, which is also an organizing node for social interactions on the weekly off for the migrant worker. Evening was receding into the night, the bus stop was getting crowded by the minute with migrant workers from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh in India and Bangladesh as the sense that their precious Sunday has flown away and the early morning commute on Monday morning dawning on them. The motley cacophony of these different linguistic sounds define the ethos of the area, and which without any doubt is very South Asian. It is a lively part of the city, which may be too lively for my Singaporean friends who try to avoid the area on weekends due to the crowd and some taxi uncles have often complained to me regarding the sheer disregard that the migrants have of traffic regulations as the crowd often spills on the street. One taxi uncle of Indian decent once quipped: “This is not India, in Singapore you have to follow rules”. May be the impact of the Little India Riots a few years back is still fresh in the consciousness of people and hence there are  (recently imposed) restrictions on drinking liquor across the Little India area in Singapore on weekends after a certain time in the evening in the interests of maintaining public order.

These hundreds of thousands of migrant workers build and maintain Singapore’s global infrastructure such as the Marina Bay Sands, Public Housing Estates, Hospitals and Universities. But these workers stay far away from the city centre where they live in dormitories on the outskirts of the city-state near the Malaysia border. These dormitories are on the lines of integrated, self-contained townships some with even a cinema hall, screening South Asian Films at a subsidized cost. Not all the dormitories are that fancy though, with cramped accommodation being a defining characteristic. But, the Sunday ritual of traveling to the Little India area for the South Asian Migrant is a sacrosanct affair, and no matter the distance and the time required, the migrant will make it the Little India area to catch up with friends and buy their weekly provisions. It takes almost two hours one way on public transport to reach the Little India area from Tuas Industrial area on the fringes where the dormitories are located.

I really enjoy the atmospherics and the cultural milieu of spending Sunday in the alleys of Little India perching my self next to Khana Basmati, a prominent Bangladeshi Restaurant frequented by migrants, as I observe deep fried and oily snacks (Bhajiyya in Hindi or Tele Bhaja in Bengali) being sold as hot cakes. The fried snacks however brutally unhealthy are lukewarm but remind me of street food in Mumbai/Kolkata. Hence, on a Sunday late evening a crowd of workers converged on the bus stop.

The Bus number 66 came; I was pushed and shoved without any regard for the orderly etiquette of the queue in Singapore, which reminded me of my days in a bus stop in South Asia certainly. The workers probably were panicking to grab a seat on the bus, as their journey back to the dormitory would take a while. The bus was theoretically a spacious, double decker one, but with hardly space to breathe, let alone breathe.  In this rather limited space, my South Indian looking neighbor took out his android phone and started reading the news on Dina Malar website, a prominent Tamil News Paper in India. Within my eyesight as well, I saw a Bangladeshi man reading news on Prothom Alo Online, the premier Bengali Language Daily in Dhaka. I saw a few others too reading news on the phone during my thirty-minute bus ride with my South Asian compatriots. The migrant keeps in touch with the daily developments in his home country due the smart phone and the reasonably priced high-speed 4G data connectivity in Singapore. Almost every migrant carries a smart phone now a days, resonating with the actions of Syrian refugees in Europe who will hold on to their smart phones at any cost, as it is their last connection to their old lives.

sunday little india Migration is a development resulting out of poor employment opportunities in their home markets and slightly better pay in manpower importing countries such as Singapore. The feeling on being connected with their families on Skype on their phones (such as one I saw on the bus) or reading the news of their native districts back home, surely make the burden of being a migrant more bearable. I am a second-generation economic migrant with my wife in India and parents in Oman, and do understand the sentiment very well.

A Scribble in Singapore Diaries: Notes from the ‘Field’

An interesting incident made my week. Here is the anecdote:

Today afternoon, when i went to the Indian food stall at the Arts Canteen here for some veg fare (i rarely eat Indian food during the week); the Uncle across the counter, addressed me as ‘Bhaiya’ and i was rather pleasantly surprised by the Mohd. Rafi song ‘Kisne April Fool Banaya’ from the 1964 Biswajeet starrer ‘April Fool’ played on full volume. Simple moments like these make life joyous. Rafi Saab with his soulful voice even after half a century makes his presence felt from Kanpur to Kent Ridge.

“April fool banaya to unako gussa aaya
To mera kya qasoor zamaane ka qasoor
Jisne dastoor banaya”


From Ferguson to Sydney: interrogating media narratives

Extremely sad to hear the loss of a young cricketers life today. Prayers and condolences to his family. But i am wondering if the same global media hype would have been created if a Zimbabwe batsman would have been hit. A need to interrogate majoratarian media narratives from Sydney to Ferguson.

Feruguson is a case in point regarding fissures beneath the surface emerging every time a social crevice opens up. Class, race, gender inequity and general socio-economic realties aggrevate stresses in society. Media as the fourth estate, too is political and inherits inherent politics biases. These biases drive the conversation. Power dynamics drive communication and subaltern voices such as the African-American Community in Ferguson are drowned out, overpowered by dominant voices such as Fox News or ABC News with the interview of the shooter policeman.

A Black 18th year old’s life is not precious enough but a white man’s argument is upheld by a unrepresentative grand jury.  The media narrative has to be inverted, and this authors humble attempt is in opening up a window in this biased discourse. Social Media and the internet mediums render that platform fortunately.