Saturday, May 9, 2009



She is best known as the mother of feminist jurisprudence in India. An eminent professor of law, Lotika Sarkar stood tall behind several path-breaking legislations for gender justice. Yet, at 87, she is a frail shadow of her self, vulnerable both physically and emotionally. Alone, widowed and childless, she has suddenly been rendered homeless and penniless.

An old friend’s son has usurped her house, claiming that she gifted it to his wife. IPS official Nirmal Dhaundiyal is now in possession of the posh South Delhi house that the Sarkars built while Lotika Sarkar has sought refuge with friends and relatives.

The Sarkar case has shaken New Delhi’s elite circles. Lotika Sarkar’s husband, Chanchal Sarkar, was a leading journalist who headed the Press Institute of India for several years. Lotika Sarkar comes from an eminent bhadralok family of Bengal and inherited both progressive ideas and money. She was the adopted daughter of the Attorney General Sir D.N. Mitra. She was the first Indian woman to go to Cambridge and the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in law at that renowned university.

Her students include some of the country’s top lawyers and judges. The list of those who have rallied to her support and signed an open letter is studded with such names as Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Soli Sorabjee, Gopal Subramaniam and Kapila Vatsyayan. Jurists, advocates, academics, bureaucrats, journalists and human rights activists have signed the open letter demanding justice for her.

Elusive justice?

Yet, justice may elude the professor of criminal law in her last years. The police official claims that she gifted the house voluntarily, out of affection, and that it was a legal transfer. Lotika Sarkar is too fragile now to contest the claim in a court of law. At the age of 87, she does not have the time for the law to take its tortuous course. She has lost everything. When friends rescued her, from what they claim was virtual house arrest, she had to leave all her things behind, even her spectacles and her cheque book.

Her friends allege that her bank accounts are empty and the large amount of ancestral jewellery she possessed is missing. They wonder where the money that came from the sale of her parents’ bungalow in Kolkata has gone. Some speculate that she was over-drugged and slept all day, leaving her memory fuzzy. However, these are unconfirmed speculations.

The episode reminds one of the apocryphal tale of the Arab who let his camel put a foot into his tent. The Dhaundiyals’ son was first invited to stay with the Sarkars when he came to Delhi to find work. He stayed on and later, after Lotika lost her husband and suffered a fracture, his mother came to stay, apparently to nurse her. The Dhaundiyals dismissed the Bengali domestic worker who had served the Sarkars for over 20 years. They evicted her from the quarter behind the house. When the domestic went to court and got an order for repossession, policemen swarmed the bungalow. The incident alerted neighbours and the Sarkar case hit the headlines.

Friends and relatives flocked to the house and several told reporters that they had stopped visiting because the Dhaundiyals had made them feel unwelcome. Few people had met Sarkar in the past two years. She had become isolated from her circle of friends, colleagues, students and admirers.

Having shifted to a cousin’s home, Lotika Sarkar issued a statement appealing to Nirmal Dhaundiyal and his family to give her back her house. He filed a habeas corpus petition in the Delhi High Court, alleging that she was being held by her relatives against her will. On March 2, 2009 the Court dismissed the application after Sarkar stated that she was staying with them of her own free will.

Public outrage

The statement signed by Sarkar’s votaries appeals that the property and assets be transferred back to her and that she be allowed to “return to her home safe and secure as an owner of the house with full rights of residence and life”.

At a press conference on the issue, the Government was urged to take action against the IPS officer for violation of the rules of conduct obligatory for a civil servant. Activists are also calling for an enquiry into his assets and those of his family.

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, founder of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, regretted that “the person concerned is a keeper of the law” and said the episode “is indicative of the lack of respect and acceptance of human dignity by the very people responsible for the law”.

Dr. Vina Mazumdar, former Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, and a close friend of “Lotikadi” (as she is affectionately known) says this is an issue that has to be fought, not just for her but for all senior citizens. At 82, Dr. Mazumdar knows the problems of ageing only too well. “Our numbers are going to increase,” she says. “And more senor citizens are going to be women, as women are biologically tougher and invariably outlive men. The Government must evolve a proper policy for the old. They need care and families are not always in a position to provide it. There should be more homes for older people. It is a social responsibility and the State has to take the lead. It can tax citizens for it.”

Dr. Mazumdar says Sarkar is the second member of the pioneering Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1975, to have been left homeless in old age. The academic Dr. Phulrenu Guha’s husband Prof. B.C. Guha had willed their home to Kolkata University for building a biochemistry lab. She was entitled to live on one floor. But the University sold the house and an ailing Guha was out on the street. Jyoti Basu heard of her plight and admitted her to a nursing home where she died.

NGOs working with the aged come across such cases regularly. According to an Older Persons Property Victimisation Survey carried out by HelpAge India in 2007, many elderly people living with their children in Delhi face intense pressure to either sell off their property or transfer ownership to their sons or daughters. Every second elderly person in the city faces harassment over property or admits to knowing another senior citizen who is being harassed. The survey found that posh South Delhi reported 41.6 per cent of cases followed by central Delhi with 20.8 per cent of cases. In 50 per cent of the cases, the harassment was being inflicted on parents by their children or children-in-law.

Easy targets

Children are not the only ones. Property brokers, dealers, lawyers and criminals prey on the old, browbeating or cheating them into parting with valuable properties. Widows are especially vulnerable as they are unfamiliar with financial and property matters and many are rendered destitute.

Dr. Mazumdar warns that increasing numbers of elderly women will face such problems in the years to come.

India’s elderly population has risen from nearly two crores in 1951 to 7.2 crores in 2001. About eight per cent of the population is over 60 and by 2025 that figure will cross 18 per cent. Life expectancy has risen from merely 29 years in 1947 to 63 years now.

There is a clear need for action on the policy and planning front. Random sops such as a lower tax slab or concessional train fares for seniors, although welcome, do not touch the heart of the matter.

The National Policy for Older Persons approved in 1999 falls short in several respects and even its limited provisions have not been adequately implemented. There are no signs of a pension fund for ensuring security for unorganised sector workers. There are too few old age homes and day-care centres and legislation for ensuring compulsory geriatric care in public hospitals is still awaited.

The only law for seniors came as late as 2007 when Parliament passed the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act.

This law is focused on the issue of maintenance and puts the responsibility squarely on the family, with children, grandchildren and other relatives liable for paying a living allowance to the elderly. Abandonment of the old is punishable by imprisonment and fine. Maintenance tribunals are to be set up to provide speedy redressal. So far, some 15 States have set up tribunals.

A valuable clause of the Act is the provision for declaring void any property transfer by the elderly, if the relative to whom it is bequeathed does not maintain the person satisfactorily. Unfortunately, such a clause may not protect a person like Sarkar whose property has been transferred to someone who is not her relative.

Welcome as the maintenance law is, it does not address the multiple problems of the elderly in a comprehensive manner. Clearly a much stronger law to protect the property, assets and human rights of the elderly is the need of the hour.

Where I live (WHEN ALONE)

There are some 25 houses on the street where I live. Every second house has an elderly widow — and a story. This small south Delhi colony was built some 30 years ago by government servants, men with some power but limited purses. The men are all gone now but the women live on. As land prices have escalated, these houses are now valuable property and vicious family dramas are unfolding.

Mrs. C. ’shares’ a house with her son and his family. After her husband’s death her son claimed the property was his. She stoutly asserted her right and the matter went to court. She is allowed only a room in the house and cooks separately. She spends her days in her daughter’s home, only sleeping at night in her own house.

Mrs. A has been the unluckiest of all. Her two, no-good sons refused to let her give even a third of the property to her married daughter. They had secured power of attorney from their unsuspecting old mother and sold the three-storied house to a broker. She was left living in the small annexe to the house. A day came when her sons brought in goondas to evict her. Mrs. A. fled to her daughter’s home. She died of heartbreak within the year.

These are real stories, unembellished, as the writer has witnessed them.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

LONELY CROWD by Jo Chhopra

A few days ago, I read this tiny news item in our local paper: “Cafe Manager Kills Self”.

A 23-year-old man allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling fan in his home in Malviya Nagar. The victim, Harsh Saini, was working as a manager in a coffee outlet in Malviya Nagar. Police said a suicide note was found which stated that no one should be blamed for the incident.

It’s the kind of awful little clip one could read every day if so inclined. I usually pass right over them, not wanting to let myself imagine too much of the individual life which had come to such a pass. Somehow, however, this one hit me hard.

I had been to that Cafe a few months ago. I remembered it because Malviya Nagar is an area in Delhi where I seldom go. I was there to meet some film-makers and I was excited because they are creative and buzzy and I was looking forward to our meeting. I was looking forward to it so much, in fact, that I arrived half an hour early and rather than disrupt their morning, I went to have a cup of coffee and catch up on some reading.
Memory’s reach

And I remember the service was so slow I almost ended up being late for my appointment. I remember being mystified by what could be taking so long because I was literally the only customer in the place. And I remember not being inclined to leave a tip but leaving one anyway because I was a waitress once myself and old habits die hard.

I thought about all this when I read about Harsh Saini, 23 years old, and I wondered if he was the one who had made my coffee so slowly that day and whether I had remembered to smile at him and whether I had thanked him properly. I wondered if the depression which finally caused him to take his life had already begun to slow him down and make his work seem futile and pointless.

“Be kind”, Plato said, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Ten years ago, our paediatrician told us that our daughter, Moy Moy, probably had only a few months left to live. Praise the good Lord, our doctor turned out to be wrong, but for most of that year, my husband, Ravi, and I stumbled around as if in a waking nightmare, functioning, but just barely. We seemed to ourselves to be always on the verge of tears, fragile and distracted.

But who knows how we appeared to others? Many people told us later that they had had no idea what we were going through.

One day during that black time, Ravi said he could never treat people casually or unfeelingly again. “When I’m sitting in a meeting in Delhi or attending a conference, no one has any idea what is happening with my daughter. So how do I know what someone else is experiencing? You really can never be sure.”

I work with an organisation in Dehradun for people with special needs. I think about all the parents whose kids attend our school. They struggle bravely and valiantly to give their children a good life in spite of their difficulties, in spite of the lack of community support and acceptance; I think of some of our staff and their hard lives and the way they still show up for work every morning cheerful and ready to care once again for the children in their charge; and then I think of Harsh Saini and all the other faces in the crowds we walk through each day, unaware of their secret griefs and sorrows.

Smile. Be Kind. So simple. So hard.

Working with people with disability makes it easier to do, somehow. The fact that so many of their struggles are obvious keeps us mindful of the struggles the rest of us do our best to hide. It’s tempting to believe that everyone else has it all together, that no one else is suffering or troubled or confused. People with disability help us smash that myth. They stand right in front of us and say: I need your help to get from one place to the other. I can’t hear what you are saying. I can’t see what you are showing me. I can’t understand what you want me to do.
If only...

If Harsh Saini had been around more people with disability, maybe he wouldn’t have needed to hide his worries and fears so effectively that he finally had to kill himself to escape them. Maybe he would have realised that it’s ok to be confused, that others have been there too and would have been willing to grab him by the hand and pull him back from the abyss.

That’s why inclusion is so important. It keeps us human. It reminds us of all that we share in common. It teaches us to look out for each other and to remember that while each one of us has secret griefs and sorrows, none of us is truly alone.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Once upon a time, annual holidays to one’s native place were not confined to domestic servants or labourers. Everybody had roots outside the city to which they returned year after year for nourishment and renewal.

Our own roots were in a village on the Gujarat shore. The bungalow had been built by grandfather soon after the First World War. Merchants of Bombay constructed summer cottages on the coast within the easy distance of the city where families could escape the pre-monsoon heat and where convenient trains deposited them for weekends.

Tongas awaited passengers at the station. The long dusty journey to the village was an endurance test. Sea View Cottage included three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The thunder-boxes were reserved for the sick, very young and very old. Everybody else used the privy at the far end of the corridor. “Bedrooms” was a misnomer. There were beds and wall-cupboards, but no privacy whatsoever. Designed for the summer pleasure of a joint family, the house overflowed with friends and relatives. At night, mattresses were unloaded from beds and spread on the floor. Then began the “goodnights”. To the children it was a game. Their goodnight calls to just about every person or pet they had ever known echoed from room to room.
Special world

My own special place was the room at the top. Breakers crashed in the distance but within my peaceful room only the swish of swaying palms and sweet scents from the garden pervaded. Savouring the heavenly quiet after the bedlam downstairs, I would reach for my treasures. There was Daddy Long Legs rubbing shoulders with Rider Haggard. The Scarlet Pimpernel leaning on The Three Musketeers. Sherlock Holmes looking down his long nose at Marie Corelli. All the fantasy worlds of a twelve-year-old.

The women of the house took equal delight in the easy, happy life, free of the rigidities of customs which bound them in the city. News of our arrival had spread. Old friends from the village brought the morning milk in shiny brass vessels, warm and foaming from the cow. Fisherwomen arrived with catch so fresh that some fish were still jumping in the baskets. Then followed a consultation with the cook. Menu decided, we all left for the beach. Meanwhile, a huge copper cauldron fed by dried coconut fronds and husks heated the bath water. One bucket was deemed sufficient to wash away the brine and sand.

Summer is synonymous with mangoes. Our orchard produced the luscious Alphonso. The major portion was parcelled to the city for sale. Mangoes for home consumption were entrusted to us. We children laid out straw on the floor of unused rooms and bedded the mangoes in even rows to mature from pinkish green to golden yellow. The fragrant perfume of ripening mangoes pervaded the house. Daily we selected the ripest and the best for meals. Unlike the exotic Alphonso, roasted gram was homely fare. Tradition decreed that during our visit gram should be distributed to village children on Friday mornings. A stream of them would wend their way into the compound and wait beside the swing. My brother became the policeman. He enforced the queue and ensured that the tiniest ones had a place in the sun. We joined the queue with the rest. The channawala would appear with stand folded under his arm and a basket of roasted gram on his head. An elder came from the house to supervise the distribution. Each child held out his white Gandhi cap or frock apron, into which was poured a measure of gram.
Heady times

Mid-day on the verandah was toddy time. When the men arrived on weekends they looked forward to the heady fragrant brew, tapped from date palms. Neera, the juice collected at dawn, was so sweet and mild children drank it like lemonade. The same toddy warmed by the sun a few hours later fermented into a powerful drink. The type of brew served separated the men from the boys.

Once, a cousin, beguiled by the fruity aroma and deceptive mildness of the toddy, imbibed too freely. We thought he had disappeared to sleep it off. A piercing shriek set us running. He lay on the pebbled walk almost hidden by a sheet and writhing with the agony of a broken arm. He had jumped from the window, arms flapping, sheets trailing, in an attempt to fly like Peter Pan. Toddy had blurred the line between reality and fantasy. Bullocks were harnessed, the cart cushioned with mattress on straw and Danesh and Dad were driven to the bone-setter three miles away.

One day we came home from the beach bursting with news. “Ma, there’s a dead whale on the beach. It’s like a huge grey mountain on the sand. The fishermen say it must have been washed ashore during the night. People are coming in hundreds to see it.” True enough, the beach was swarming with villagers. They appeared bearing marigolds, fruit, vermillion powder, coconuts and tiny oil lamps. By evening the behemoth was a weird sight. Festooned with flowers and flickering lamps it resembled a sacrificial offering.

The images which comfort my soul in the evening of my life are those which money cannot buy. Of sun and sand and deserted beaches, the sparkling cascade of a water-wheel as it turns and falls in its perpetual cycle over the well, the sweet scents of a jasmine garden, and above all, the silence and solitude which has totally disappeared from our lives today. We are the poorer for all our progress.

-Sillo Mehta