November 4, 2011


[Although based in North India, at least half the Nat community lives a nomadic lifestyle. They travel to cities across India and put their children to work as entertainers. The nomadic Nats may often contribute money to the families of the settled Nats, who work as farm laborers or day-wage construction workers.]

By Sonia Faleiro

Sonia FaleiroKajal, four-year-old
performer from the
Nat community
On a Sunday evening on a traffic island in the midst of south Mumbai’s Colaba Causeway, three children are at work.

Raja, age 16, is banging on a dhol, or drum, hanging around his neck, while the younger children begin a series of slow somersaults.
Kajal, 4 years old, wears a shrunken red T-shirt and matching pants. She throws bright smiles. Her performing partner, a pony-tailed 7-year-old, wears a serious expression and a short-sleeved dress over gray jeans. Contrary to the child’s feminine appearance and behavior, he is a boy named Ram. He’s wearing a wig.
“People pay to watch girls, not boys,” explains Raja, who is their minder.
Raja has a minder of his own, Barsaati, who says she’s in her 20s. She sits in a corner of the traffic island chewing gutka and holding a child. Barsaati is listlessly banging a tin plate as musical accompaniment to the performance unfolding before her. Next to her is a thali, a metal plate, that Kajal will shake in front of the passersby who stopped to watch her perform. That day she and Ram will earn 150 rupees (about $3) for a full day’s work.
The children and minder are Nats, a low caste that like so many others, have traditionally been confined to a single occupation. These days such restrictions are believed to be compelled less by caste rules and more by poverty, illiteracy or a lack of modern skills. Communities or individuals that are given the opportunity or have the skills to pursue an occupation outside of the one dictated by caste, often do so. Traditional occupations of low-caste communities can be low-paying and unreliable and marginal.
The traditional occupation of the Nats is any work that can be classified as “entertainment.” This includes dancing at melas, or fairs, sex work, and the acrobatics Kajal and Raj are performing.
Although based in North India, at least half the Nat community lives a nomadic lifestyle. They travel to cities across India and put their children to work as entertainers. The nomadic Nats may often contribute money to the families of the settled Nats, who work as farm laborers or day-wage construction workers.
While they perform on traffic islands, outside malls, and in parks, nomadic Nats live on the outskirts of cities in tents. They prefer construction sites, because it’s easy to find water and electricity there.
Nats often shun education and conventional employment, as well as interaction outside of their community.
The children perform a short sequence of stretches and acrobatic maneuvers. Then, first one, and then the other, squeezes through a hoop until both are lying for a few seconds peacefully atop each other, their eyes tightly closed.
Wriggling out of the hoop, Kajal scampers off while Ram, still unsmiling, heads toward a rope strung six feet above the ground between wooden poles. He has the most difficult task.
These particular Nats are from Chhattisgarh, and are at the end of a long stretch of travel and work. “In two days we return home,” says Barsaati. “We’ll meet our family, relax, eat and drink. Everyone is waiting to welcome us.”
Also waiting to welcome the group is the rest of their troupe. They are waiting in a tented camp on a construction site in the suburb of Mira Road. It takes almost two hours to get to the camp — an hour on the train followed by a 40-minute walk from the Mira Road train station. The children and Barsaati will carry back everything they brought into the city: five six-feet-high bamboo poles, several heavy coils of rope, and three jute bags containing thalis, tin plates, and food (they neither buy nor cook their own food when out, but depend on whatever scraps people offer them).
Once in the camp, the children eat and sleep early to save their energy for the next day’s performances.
There are 40 adults in the camp. They spend all day inside their tents to protect themselves from the heat. Every once in a while a woman will pop out of a tent to help herself to a bowl of rice from the clay pot in which food is cooked first thing in the morning. The pot remains in the shade for the rest of the day. The men go for short strolls to smoke beedis, thin Indian cigarettes. There’s not much to do, and the adults do little. There are no children in the camp because they’re scattered across the city performing, each group of three or four children is accompanied by two minders.
“The children work for the community,” Barsati’s brother, Manish, tells me. “We did the same thing when we were their age. But once we grew big, around 13, 14, we had to stop. Who gives big children money? So what could we do? We stopped working, we married, we had children, and our children started to perform. Now we move with them, protect them. When they come of age they’ll stop and be like us. This is our tradition.”
I ask Manish if he has considered the possibility of another kind of life. For example, was there a school in his village he could send the children to?
He beams. “One school? There are three schools in our village. That’s how prosperous our village is!”
And they’re government schools? I ask. The education is free?
He nods. “But what is free education to us? We are not supposed to study. We are khelwalas, supposed only to entertain. Even if I wanted to send my child to school I couldn’t.”
“The Jaat Panchayat would throw us out of the village,” he says, referring to the council that regulates the lives of members of his caste. “And if they did, our family would side with them. Then what would we do?”
Back on Colaba Causeway, as Raja bangs on his drums, Ram walks swiftly across the rope, balancing in his arms a thick bamboo pole no less than eight feet in length. On one side, the road is full of oncoming traffic. Beneath is the hard ground.
The audience holds its breath. But Ram doesn’t seem to notice, to look either right or left. Instead, he stares intently ahead, to the end of the rope noosed tightly around the bamboo pole.


[In the coming year, officials plan to repeat the unmanned exercise with astronauts as part of its mission to reach the moon and to launch its own space station by 2020. If all goes according to plan, China’s floating laboratory would become airborne around the same time the aging International Space Station goes into retirement.]
By Andrew Jacobs

CCTV, via APTN, via Associated Press
A still image from a Chinese broadcast on Thursday of 
the docking of the Shenzhou 8 capsule with the 
Tiangong 1 module
BEIJING — With a “kiss” more than 200 miles above Earth, a pair of Chinese spacecraft successfully coupled early Thursday morning, bringing the country one step closer to its four-decade quest for manned space exploration.
The docking of the Shenzhou 8 capsule with the Tiangong 1 module was broadcast live on national television. Prime Minister Wen Jiabaowatched from the control center in Beijing, and thousands of citizens expressed their pride through Internet postings in what many referred to as the country’s first “space kiss,” remarking how far China had come since its more impoverished days.
In the coming year, officials plan to repeat the unmanned exercise with astronauts as part of its mission to reach the moon and to launch its own space station by 2020. If all goes according to plan, China’s floating laboratory would become airborne around the same time the aging International Space Station goes into retirement.
American and Russian aerospace engineers perfected space docking in the 1960s, but Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China’s manned space program, said that Chinese scientists had come to this moment largely on their own, having domestically produced hundreds of components and instruments.
“This makes China one of the few countries in the world that can independently research and develop docking mechanisms,” Ms. Wu said at a news conference on Thursday, describing the achievement as “a historic breakthrough for our country and a huge technical leap forward.”
Some Western scientists, however, said the successful mission provided stark evidence that the 20-year-old sanctions that limit cooperation between American and Chinese aeronautical engineers had failed.
The policy, imposed by Congress shortly after Beijing’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, restricts scientific exchanges and blocks exports of space technology. Chinese scientists are barred from American space conferences, and China is not among the 16 countries whose astronauts are allowed to use the International Space Station.
In the two decades since it was frozen out of the world’s elite space club, China has relied on its own aerospace engineers, aided by lavish government financing, to chase its space exploration dreams. In 2003 came the first successful human space flight, and in recent years Chinese scientists have mastered the manufacture and launching of communication satellites, many of which are sold to nations in the developing world. In 2008, Chinese astronauts took their first spacewalk, and last year China sent up a second lunar probe.
In an ominous turn, in 2007 Beijing successfully tested an antisatellite missile that alarmed Washington and angered many international scientists for rendering the target, an aging weather satellite, into potentially dangerous orbital debris.
Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization based in Cambridge, Mass., says the Congressional ban on cooperation with China spurs suspicion on both sides of the Pacific and fuels a costly, unnecessary space race. “When we deny them visas, it breeds hostility among young Chinese scientists,” he said, adding, “the lack of cooperation could lead to miscalculations and escalated conflicts in times of crises.”
Conversely, he and other scientists say, cooperation has a multitude of benefits, especially in an era of trillion-dollar deficits. For one, the prohibitive cost of NASA’s dreamed mission to Mars would be better shared by other nations, as John P. Holdren, the White House science adviser, has said in the past.
In testimony before a House panel on Wednesday in which he defended his contacts with Chinese officials, Mr. Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, tried to tamp down Congressional opposition to White House efforts that seek expanded scientific exchanges with China.
He pointed out that 30 years of cooperation had brought a multitude of benefits, from physics to pest control. The exchanges, he said, “strengthen our hand in the effort to get China to change the aspects of its conduct that we oppose.”
Many members of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee, however, were not impressed, citing Beijing’s troubled human rights record and a growing number of cases involving technology theft from American companies. “Any effort on our part to reach out to the Communist Chinese, to engage them on matters of technology is, quite frankly, not just naïve but dangerous,” said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California.
The snubs may sting, but the restrictions do not seem to be holding back China’s aerospace industry. In celebrating the successful docking on Thursday, Ms. Wu of China’s manned space program said that even if its spacecraft were homemade, China would not exclude other countries from playing a role in its aerospace program. German scientists, she said, had equipped the Shenzhou 8, with a device for conducting experiments. And unlike the International Space Station, China’s space laboratory will have no membership restrictions when it becomes operational. “The planned Chinese space station will be open to global scientists,” she said.
Shi Da contributed research.