Saturday, December 29, 2007

Globetrotting on Wings

Imagine a Government office on a weekday. What kind of faces you expect to see ? Mostly middle aged men and women, engaged half heartedly in the tasks , now routine for them for years. Some ‘know all’ veterans engaged in counseling the novices and some confused souls roaming around with not much work in hand. So on Wednesday last , when in one such office attendance was very bleak, at 5 in the evening, the boss decided to screen a documentary on migratory birds . What response do you expect from such a screening? Only few will attend and without much understanding, will copy the exclamations, praises and criticisms of the bosses...isn't it? At least I expected it to be so…and was surprised to find a very different reaction in the end. It was a house full show in our conference hall and though in the initial 10 minutes, there were whispers about what kind of 'movie' is this we moved along things changed for better . Yes, in my office, last Wednesday we screened Jacques Perrin’s oscar nominated documentary Winged Migration at my boss's insistence and a very mixed group of people was spellbound by the visuals and sounds of this amazing documentary. Eighty nine minutes of birds flying (and eating, and dancing, and floundering, and squabbling, and dying) were indeed quite sufficient to make audiences laugh, applaud, and gasp with wonder and delight .

In fact, I was wondering later on whether one should call it a documentary at all. My idea of a documentary is a bland linear narration of a subject. Not that I consider all of them boring or artless ,but there was something in this one which made me so happy. I don't remember getting such happiness from any other documentary. I was so happy to share the planet with such brave and beautiful creatures. Jacques Perrin and his team of technicians laboured nearly four years to create this paean to the beauty and character of our feathered friends, at least the ones that do a lot of traveling.. But the docu is not entirely about birds. Its about the world, humans and birds share . Human presence is very minimal in the narration , but we do have some very touching scenes with humans in it. Like a small boy running to see the birds back after a seasonal migration or an old lady feeding the birds in Spain. The feature is painstakingly shot without any special effects and that makes it very special. Further there is a clever use of transitions and very subtle use of commentary that makes it so perfect . But while i was watching it these considerations were not with me..i was just too engrossed in the beauty of the visuals and music .

Visuals are definitely the high point of the docu. Many shots are unforgettable: the reflections of Barnacle Geese repeatedly flash and disappear as they fly over flats with pools of water; Bar-Headed Geese sit calmly on a mountain in Nepal, looking remarkably calm in a driving blizzard, tuck their heads under wings, and then take off as the rumble of an avalanche builds( how the hell they knew that an avalanche is coming?) ; Red-Crowned Cranes strut, leap, dance, and trip on Hokkaido; geese fly above glaciers like cold blue granite; geese fly through a driving snowstorm with the camera traveling alongside them at eye and wing level; snow geese are shot from above as they fly over a flaming red maple forest in New York state; the telescope portal of an astronomical observatory opens just as a flock of geese flies across the widening slot; a pelican's lower beak pokes the bag of his neighbor's mouth all out of shape; dark African birds hold out their wings like an umbrella to shade the water they're walking in and many many more.

One thing that helps keep the film interesting is the variety of terrains as well as familiar landmarks from around the world. Cameras take us to the Himalayas, Saharan dunes, Greenland glaciers, paddies in China, a gorgeous desert oasis, grim and filthy industrial districts of Eastern Europe, and Antarctica. We see birds pass the Statue of Liberty at dusk, Mont-St-Michel, the World Trade Center towers, and the Great Wall of China. Geese flap under a bridge across the Seine, hardly giving a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty a glance, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance. We're treated to shots of a total solar and partial lunar eclipse.
But another and I dare say equally powerful feature was the soulful music. It was mostly a mix of sounds and instruments …no words as such( or may be in some language I don’t understand) , but it was so timely and so right for the visuals . Best part however, was to watch the birds living their lives unaware of the camera. Their joys, their routine, their struggles for survivals, their instincts was very facinating to watch .

At the end of the feature, I was just feeling very very glad….a feeling one rarely gets these days from any type of media. I highly recommend the documentary . Watch it if you can lay your hands on it.

Burying Dreams of a Nation

I don’t write Political blog and my posts are collection of very personal thoughts . So before I proceed on this post I must say that this is based on my views and knowledge – both of which have limitations. I have some very good friends in Pakistan and I have a lot of respect for their culture and faith. I am writing this becauseI have been thinking about this for last two days and I feel sad about the conditions prevailing in that country. After all as an Indian , I can’t help being curious about Pakistan. We share very similar culture and history and yet, a man made line on the map has made the destiny of the two nations so different. I read an interesting description of Pakistan in the September issue of National Geographic where they have called Pakistan as Islam’s Fault Line. It is true that the two conflicting forms of Islam meet in this land which was taken out of Indian subcontinent in the name of Islam 60 years back. There is relatively relaxed and tolerant Islam of India versus the rigid fundamentalist Islam of Afghan border…and there are followers of the both streams . But Islam as the founding philosophy of this land, has failed to unite the various ethnic groups of Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi , Pashtun etc , as a nation . So even in the last few days of 2007 when Pakistan is mourning the brutal death of its leader Benazir, it is also facing some difficult truths about the country itself.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, is one leader whose life and ideas I find very intriguing. How he evolved/regressed in his political philosophy is something to be discussed and analyzed. By any standard, his was an eventful life, his personality multidimensional and his achievements in other fields were many, if not equally great. He was one of the greatest legal luminaries India had produced during the first half of the century, an `ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’, a great constitutionalist, a distinguished parliamentarian, a shrewd politician, a dynamic political strategist and much more. He started off as a liberal secularist westernized leader. In fact in his personal lifestyle I don’t see much difference from the Nehru Family. Then he started talking about Pakistan which was his brain child as a refuge for the Muslims and not an Islamic state. His model was of a democracy merged with Islamic ideals. Even in his inaugural address he said “In Pakistan….Muslims will cease to be Muslims , not in the religious sense , but as citizen of the state.” But this was never to be . Pakistan’s 60 years of existence is marred with bloody coups, hangings and assassinations…..the latest victim being Benazir …and again and again the issue of Islam pops us during these troubles.

General Zia –ul-Haq after seizing power in 1977 , hanging the democratically elected PM , promptly proclaimed that Pakistan was “ created on the basis of Islam”. General Zia set out to make it a hard core Islamic country despite the fact that most ordinary Pakistanis remain moderates. Pakistan is still struggling with issues of “crimes against Islam”, “Jihad” and “ Muslim identity” . So any discussion about Pakistan has to deal with these. I wonder why ? during any cultural interactions with Pakistan…be it through music or theatre , films or books and articles , one finds that most of the ordinary men and women have nothing to do with this fanatic and extremist struggle..they are simply caught in the midst of very troubled situation. While I was reading The Kite Runner and then The Book seller of Kabul, I realized how the Pakistani borders are infiltrated by Afghanis including the Talibans. So they have their jihad for Kashmir on one side, and support for Taliban on the other…in between, being economically and strategically depended on America, they also have Uncle Sam giving them advice on internal matters. I feel sad for the land which gave us some of the best writers, poets, artists and statesmen as it is no longer in control of its own affairs. Unfortunately, all these so called ‘jihads’ and Islamic struggles…and violence in the name of it, results in more poverty…leading to more backwardness, unemployment and vulnerability to be manipulated. The dilemma of the time was very well expressed by Indian journalist Saead Naqvi who in an interview said that even those who are crying out for democratic and civil rights are aware that with such widespread extremist presence and the fact of its being a Nuclear Power , army will continue to play a prominent role in Pakistan Politics and that too on its own terms.

This morning I read two old articles written by Benazir Bhutto remembering her father’s execution and the Shimla Conference . The first was very moving. It was saying more about a personal tragedy of losing a ‘papa’ than a national loss of a leader. In the same news paper I saw picture of Benazir’s son ………grieving loss of a mother and ready to carry out a responsibility of being born a Bhutto. As in this subcontinent we are very very feudal when it comes to choosing political successors , I am sure like Rajiv Gandhi , Rahul Gandhi and other leader-sons (and daughters) …Benazir’s children will also inherit the throne sooner or later . The personal tragedy will form basis of vote banks and soon people will forget the gravity of the crime. Same, however, may not be the future for the families of others ordinary Pakistanis who lost their lives in the same bomb blast.
Relatively, in India we are better off. Broadly our democracy is not faring as bad as theirs. Our economy is booming manifold and except for some blots , religion is not the core issue for us as a nation. But go deep down the brass tacks and perhaps an undercurrent of the same feudalism, same fundamentalism run across our land as well. I agree, not to such dangerous proportions…but not negligible either.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Meeting Job Charnock ....finally.

Three years back when I was walking for the first time towards AG Bengal building, which was to be my new office, I was overwhelmed by the magnificent colonial structures all around the Dalhousie square. It was then that I noticed an old church round the corner. That day, I made a mental note to visit these buildings very soon …specially the church. Believe me, it took me three years to walk exactly 38 steps from my office to see the beautiful and historical St.John’s Church. I passed by its gate dozens of time, every time promising myself that I will come back to see the church building very soon…but it had to happen only today. Just now, when I narrated this tale to a fellow visitor at the church and he aptly quipped the saying :The nearer the church, the farther from God. But thank God that it happened before I say goodbye to Calcutta. It was wonderful to walk in the church compound on this lovely afternoon (I went there during lunch hour ) . It was a learning experience too .After all , till yesterday, I knew only three facts about this church.
One that It houses Job Charnock’s mausoleum. Two that there is a replica of Holwell Monument which was commissioned by Curzon and third that this was Warren Hastings church... even later Governor Generals’ too attended the Sunday masses here …after all it is bang opposite the east gate of Governor General’s house (now Raj Bhawan) . Just before leaving for the church, thanks to my ever-reliable Google, I found that there is a famous painting of The Last Supper by John Zoffany .

Replica of Holwell monument in memory of the Black Hole victims

So curious by all this trivia, and equipped with my soapbox camera , I walked inside the green compound of the church. The old building was looking regal in the afternoon glow and adding to the charm were the groups of birds chirping happily on the old trees of the campus .About two dozen cars were parked inside….no, not the visitor’s cars ..these are cars of people working in nearby offices and High Court. For them ,the Church compound provides a cheap option for car parking. As for visitors, there were hardly any. Besides me there were only two other people admiring the building .

The Last Supper by John Zoffany .

This church , which was built in 1787 and is believed to be the original parish church of Bengal, is located on an area of 8 bighas and 16 cottahs. Warren Hastings and Reverend William Johnson were said to be the prime movers behind its construction at an old burial ground that had been closed since 1676. The land belonged to a zamindar Raja Nabo Kishen Bahadur (of Shovabazar Royal Family) who donated this land to Church committee and Warren Hastings in 1783. On 6th April 1784 the work started and within three years the building was completed.
I was very keen about this church because of Job Charnock. A very interesting person by all counts. He was ,of course, the British trade administrator and is founder of city of Calcutta but what I find most interesting about him is his marriage. The circumstances under which he met his wife were romantic, astonishing and somewhat appalling too. It is said that one day Charnock and his associates saw the ritual of sati being performed on the banks of Hooghly. Charnock saw the woman about to be burnt with her husband’s body. Moved by the scene and possessed by the beauty of the young widow, he ordered his men to stop the ritual, dispersed the crowd of relatives and priests and seize the woman . The woman was taken to one of his apartments and after few days he married her. It is believed that he even embraced Hinduism to get his ladylove’s consent for the marriage . They had several children and spent many blissful years together. Job Charnock however, is not lying alone over here, in his grave. He shares this cemetery with several distinguished Britons and of course his beloved wife and two daughters are also buried here . His sculpture was made by his son-in-law Sir Charles Ayar around 1695. The sculpture is a unique specimen of art. There is a dome with a pitcher appended to it. There are also the tombs of the daughters of Charnock, the sculptures of British Admiral Watson who with Clive liberated/subjugated Calcutta in 1757, Lord Brabourne, Lady Canning and several distinguished persons.

Job Charnock’s mausoleum

Inside the church besides the famous paintings of The Last Supper by John Zoffany is a marvelous stained glass window and memorial tablets of prominent citizens through the ages. It was interesting to find Mary Magdalene leaning over Jesus’ shoulder in this version of The last Supper. I was suddenly reminded of the movie ‘DA VINCI CODE’ . But what I found even more interesting was a huge organ with its wooden wind pipes going up to the ceiling. It was placed just next to the pulpit and I was told that it was brought from Glasgow .Believe it or not it still plays with perfect notes.

The lovely wooden Organ

Another beauty was a marble statue of a lady which was donated by the merchants of Calcutta. I was lucky that another visitor familiar with the place was also there. He took me to the clock and bell tower and from the roof of the church I saw a very novel sight of my office building . The clock chimes announced 2.30 (Yes, this 300 year old clock is still functioning). And what an old church and cemetery is worth if there are no ghosts. So my fellow visitor informed me that there have been several 'sightings' of a man playing organ and a woman (who was beheaded and later buried in the campus )walking near the graves with her head on her hand... that is not original... reminds me of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow .
The obelisk commemorating the black hole was moved from near the GPO to a corner of this graveyard. It is the earliest example of British masonry in India. Near the west wall is a replica of the Holwell Monument - originally erected at the site of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Those were the days of Governor General in council and the church contains the original furniture used for council meetings. It was brought from the Governor General’s house and is kept in the study of Warren Hastings the first Governor-general of India. The study is decorated with old oil paintings of the gentlemen who graced the room few centuries back . There are some old sketches of the church also kept here.

Thanks to the money received by World Heritage council in 2004 , the conservation work was going on for the church building and the cemetery .While present efforts are concentrating on conserving the exterior, reviving the clock and bell tower and cleaning the churchyard, subsequent phases will concentrate on the landscaping of the rest of the grounds and conservation of the mausoleums and tombstones there.
Let’s see when I can visit the next place in my list ..may be some other day during lunch hour . That is if my boss does not happen to read this post
You can find my pics from this visit here .

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Appearing “Correct”

Last Sunday , The Times of India carried a hilarious article on Political correctness in Britain. It was a picture of a Britain in crisis, a Britain that has become hilariously ridiculous in the name of fairness, equality and general safety standards. So much so that they even have a movement called the Campaign Against Political Correctness…and what else one can expect if even the nursery rhymes are being modified to suit the modern notions of political correctness. I learnt from the article that in England these days, Three Wise Men become Three Wise Women, and on occasion, Baby Jesus in the manger is a girl. Gingerbread Man is now Gingerbread Person. The words 'manpower' and 'mankind' are not used anymore in some organizations. And, in the face of increasing gay rights, when a councilor joked that Noah could not have taken only animals of the opposite sex into his ark, angry members of the council demanded that he be sent to "compulsory equality training''. Burger King changed the swirls on its ice cream lids after one man complained that the swirls resembled Allah in the Arabic script. Last year, the Greater Manchester Police advised its officers not to arrest Muslims at prayer times during Ramzan. A hospital bans cooing at newborns because it violates the human rights of infants. Some newspapers spell black with a capital 'B' and white with 'w' in lower case. The Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council banished from its offices the image of Piglet from Winnie The Pooh so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities.
I wonder if in India we are also following suit our former colonial masters in making a joke of our public behavior. I am not a Madhuri Dixit fan…in fact I did not even bother to watch most of her blockbuster movies. But no one in his/her senses can justify the anger some of our veteran politician showed on one of the songs of her comeback movie. The message is that we will have to revise our sayings, our jokes and our songs also to ensure they do not mention caste . It seems Sudanese are not the only people angered by a teacher's innocent act of naming a teddy bear Mohammed …we ,in India, are just few steps behind. Today morning I read in the newspaper that a Sikh gentleman in Lucknow took offence of a sardarji SMS joke and filed a FIR against Mukesh Ambani , the owner of Reliance communications.The newspaper on this issue comments that jokes targeting communities should stop..after all we are a multiethnic community .Very soon it will be politically incorrect to laugh at a Sardarji joke or a mallu or a Gujju joke .As it is our media works with unwritten rule of not naming Muslim community in case of riots. it is usually a clash between two 'different' communities or a procession of “ minority community” which leads to curfew . Naming these communities may intensify the situation. And media is not the only ones going paranoid. Schools too are joining the brigade. Punishing students is a complete no-no. Even announcing merit list may give inferiority complex to some kids so its just grading of A,B,C in our modern day school boards. Children are not to be admonished for their mistakes and wrongdoings for all you know this may violate the child’s right to express himself. In government offices also we follow a similar correctness of behavior. In fact that is why I chose the name of my other blog “Being Officially Incorrect”. Sadly nobody is bothered how this official correctness is making our system inefficient and ineffective. Male superiors have to be doubly sure to reprimand inefficient female subordinates in office …as a sexual harassment complaint comes very handy in such cases . Even while holding disciplinary proceedings against a person belonging to “underprivileged” class one has to ensure that the inquiry officer is also of the same class. Any decision related to Muslims has to be taken taking care of their religious status …even when it is about a completely non-religious issue. And all these unwritten rules have authority of experience. There have been court cases and political campaigns on these issues and in the name of appearing correct our system has often ignored the apparent, the obvious and the known. Even in our movies dialogues and characters must follow these rules or else we have outfits in all communities to ensure protest and violence on the streets. This ridiculous political correctness has no end and moreover serves no real purpose.
Discrimination against disabled does not change anyways in its gravity by calling them “differently abled persons”. But then who cares ? The funny part is that all these right activists and moral police authorities go in such funny details that they miss the main point of their protest itself. Often the protests lead to a greater curiosity and hence free publicity to the so called violation. A fine example is protest on Deepa Mehta’s Fire. It was by all measures a very ordinary and let me say- boring movie. It would not have earned one tenth of its revenue had not Shivsena protested against it and thereby making it an issue for feminists and right-activists .I still remember how vehemently Madhu Kishwar was opposed when she said that Fire is a very ordinary and boring movie . Same is true about Taslima Nasreen’s books. She is a very ordinary writer and all her controversial books are a written with an aim to create controversy ….but thanks to Muslim organizations she is a known name in literary circles , her books made good profit and she is seen a victim of Islamic Fundamentalism for the cause of freedom of speech .

In America these days, it is a discrimination of the other extreme. After 9/11 in that country it is politically incorrect to trust Muslims. No American Authority can afford to be reasonable when Muslims are concerned. So anyone with a Muslim name is unwelcome. One of my friends from Bahrain wanted to appear for CIA exam for which the centre was in USA. He was denied visa thrice because he is 22 , male and Muslim . To make his crime worse his name is Mohammed ….a solid proof for the American agencies that he is linked to some or the other Terrorist outfit and thus a potential threat to the American People.
Help! What kind of prejudiced, artificial and lunatic world sans any sense of humour and ability to laugh at , we are heading for ? I too feel like joining the Campaign against Political Correctness and if that involves laughing at 'gender insensitive' jokes and using 'unparliamentary' language when one feels like then so be it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Some Days are Diamonds .....

Finally I got the title for my post .This is from the song playing on my computer right now…and it reflects my mood very aptly. I had a wonderful day today. Indeed a Diamond –day . As it is , I love this period of the year. For one it’s the beginning of winter and also beginning of arrival of Birthday Cakes in the family . For two, this is the time when our garden in Lucknow used to be full of seasonal flowers and sitting there in the lawn, enjoying a good cup of ginger tea, daydreaming about life, was my all time favorite activity . Even in Calcutta one can feel the soothing sunshine and just a hint of winter but then on a weekday , you hardly notice the weather and its beauty. And sadly, weekends have a routine of their own.

I seldom take leave from office without any reason and the reason is usually my visit to Lucknow. But today was an exception. Few days back, I realized that I have most of my Casual Leaves unspent and its just one month before they lapse. Determined not to let that happen I took leave for a day just ike that and it was fabulous . One of the best things I have done in recent times. Such unexpected leaves on weekdays when everybody else is off to work are absolute pleasure. One can indulge in activities as and when one likes. My idea of ideal activities on such a day are :
1. Trying out that weird looking recipe which I once found in a cookbook
2. Arranging my wardrobe and enjoying the unexpected pleasure of finding some of my favorite dresses at the bottom of the shelf. Well , in fact this can also be a shocking experience if you happen to try a dress which used to fit “till the other day” and realize that now you’ve grown beyond it.
3. Reading old letters and replying to some . no no no…not emails. I am talking about post…in today’s terminology the snail mail, which I still love to receive and reply
4. Listen to all old favorite songs. You can have John Denver telling you what all he has been thinking about lately…and Pandit Jasraj recounting the glory of Mriganayani ka yaar.
5. Watching cartoons followed by a black and white movie .
6. Going to the nearby mall and buying things you DON’T need .
7. Going for vegetable shopping

8. Making flower arrangements
9. Reading old favorites in books and stories
10. and most favorite , looking out from the balcony and remembering old days...thinking nothing in particular..just admiring the glory of the day .

Today I could manage to do only some of these. I did some cooking . Prepared first Carrot Halwa of the season and also a favorite sweet chilly pickle with Kamy auntie’s recipe. I also read some old issues of Outlook Traveller . Watched Kishore Kumar starrer “Ek ladka Ek Ladki” and am listening complete Atu’s favorite Play list for the second time . Right now I am feeling very very happy and most irksome thought of the moment is that the day is almost over and tomorrow , as Scarlet O’Hara would have agreed , is another day…sadly an office day . So back to DP targets and Presentation for ADAI.

But then, all good things in life are short-lived. On the brighter side , I still have few more CLs with me and let’s see if I can use them as well. Now I know why some sensible government officer amde the rule that though leaves are not a matter of right, all government servants should be encouraged to take leaves. In the logjam of daily life one forgets how wonderful life is. So here is the title song for the post ,…some days are diamonds some days are stones… hope this will inspire you too , to enjoy doing 'nothing in particular ' for a day or two . The message of the day is :

Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering."