Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Railways Lore

Ask any child growing up in Indian plains , trains are pure magic moving on tracks. Trains fuel are imagination in so many different ways , lure us towards them with an unparalleled magnetism and are originator of many great stories. I think Paul Theroux echoed sentiments of generations of Indians when he said “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly no matter what the landscape, increasing your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink…anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep and strangers monologues framed like Russian short stories…. I sought trains and found passengers.”
This week I read a wonderful collection of short stories related to Indian Railways edited by Ruskin Bond . I know several other movies, novels and real life tales where trains played an important role in the happenings. Satyajit Rai used trains as a metaphor for modernization in his movie Pather Panchali. Ruskin Bond wrote the most incredible love story ‘Eyes are not there’ on the chance meeting of two persons in a train and who can forget the charming Devanand singing 'Hai apna dil to awara ...' in the Bombay local train . In many Indian movies the climax scene of separation or reunion was played on a railway platform and no wonder ,it is difficult for me to imagine how people lived when there was no Railways in India. Come to think of it…it was just a century and half that railways come to India and it seems that they were always part of us. Paraphrasing the popular ad of SAIL I dare say –There is little bit of railways in each one of us.

My first clear memory of a train is when I was 4 year old and my father was transferred from Pantnagar to Jhansi. We traveled by a inter connected train (which was a novelty for us kids) . My dad took me for a walk inside the train and at each joint between bogies my heart skipped a beat with excitement . That journey was also my first long distance train journey and hence for the first time I was acquainted with first class coupe, pantry inside the train and even sleeping on berth. Each of which was exciting beyond description for the child of four .
Train travel has come of an age since then. Trains like Shatabdi express and Rajdhani Express are much faster, comfortable and technically superior. We even have designer trains like the famous Palace on Wheels which is almost luxury of wheels. During my stay at Shimla I fell in love with the quintessential chuk-chuk gadi …the steam engine toy trains . They may be slow , may not be that luxurious but they are what was our childhood imagination of the train . Its difficult not to wave when you hear the familiar sound of these trains coming out of a tunnel or entering into another .
All kids are fascinated by trains, their tracks, their whistle and even the not-so-clean platforms . Railway platforms are a hub of activities. Some of them like Lucknow's Charbagh station, Chennei Egmore station or Mumbai CST are architectural beauties and others are just functional buildings. With vendors , booksellers, beggars, passengers ,pickpocketers , passengers and the entire paraphernalia of Railways, these stations are always game for some or the other stranger than fiction real life tale. . Some of these of course are also tales of horror , specially with foreigners this one funny (but I am sure true) picture drawn by a harassed tourist -
"I thought I was intrepid
Flying 'cross the world
Till I met with Indian trains
That thrashed my bod and bashed my brains
And rendered me to curled,
pathetic Urchin-like remains
Ne'er again will I set forth
"Intrepid be my name"
I'll worry 'bout which platform
And how to step 'round rat swarms
And when to wake
And how to make out
Hindi station names"

But being an Indian and thus familiar with the rules of the game , I have received people/boarded trains at oddest of hours and even the small stations never failed me on unusual people and scenes.I feel perfectly at home in trains .Though I must confess that I have not travelled in unreserved compartments or passengers trains much. I enjoy the luxury provided by trains in terms of their swing like gait, their slow but tolerable catering and the variety of interaction one can taste during train journeys . I was therefore not surprised that so many writers chose to write stories with railways at the backdrop. While travelling across country for 'Bharat Darshan' we witnessed the variety of life at the railway stations. With every hundred kilometers the nature and attitude of the station changed dramatically. Changes were not only in the building style, the snacks available or the language but also in the behaviour of porters, interest of the onlookers and even the mood of the place .

I firmly believe that to see India in its true colours one must travel with Indian railways . It may not have the comforts of air travel and may even lack the ease of road but this is the way India travels to work, to home and to holidays .

Monday, November 24, 2008

Days of Innocence ....

Opening my office dak pad on a Monday morning is hardly an enjoyable exercise. While mindlessly marking the letters to various sections this morning , I suddenly found an envelop bearing the name of NAAA- our academy in Shimla . I was asked to ‘pin down the elusive quality that distinguishes us from the rest’ by the Director General of the Academy . He had asked me to ‘distill this essence of ‘Life at Yarrows /Academy’. Aha, now that is something ! I stopped reading rest of the dak and like a true general of CAG’s army I rose to the call of the service , picked up my pen and decided to start writing right ahead . The pen did not move for many minutes.
I was trying to think of days when office building did not remind me of the important meeting at 4 for which I have yet to write a brief or when ATNs, memos, IRs , and record productions were merely academic subjects and not hard core realities of life . I pushed aside all these dementors like realities by happy thoughts of our dreamlike existence in our beloved yarrows. I had to write my most favorite reminiscences , a Julie Andrew kinda list of my favorite things that fill my mind in times of need . The list got muddled up in my brain. There were room secrets, batch secrets and taboos …Just can’t tell everyone about those .Then there were unspeakable facts …I had to respect those. There were also things that may be seen as clichés , I would avoid those too …..and rest , by jove, they are so personal, would anyone get the ‘feel’ of it just by my poorly drafted words. (I sincerely regretted sleeping in those classes of drafting ‘complete, concise and correct reports’). How I wish I could borrow Dickens’ words. I would have then famously said about those days that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ,it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,…..we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” The dementors came back to me despite the image of yarrows still wet in my eyes – may be the contrast was just too much.
It was just this morning only that I was thinking of Sisyphus. Am I going to spend my life like that? Even gods, for some reason decided that there is no dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. Just nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Am I a Sisyphus coming back to the plains -- down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end .May be not….the dreadfully dull and meaningless daily existence may not be the stuff made of dreams but then it is not a torment—it is great fun also .At least sometimes. On some moments it is worth living. It is worth bearing when those moments are not there … After all, a long walk, a refreshing bath, a cold breeze and lots of memories…. above all my imagination, my ability to enjoy all this –that is also a part of my being. How it can be a torment then .Perhaps these patches of indescribable pain – the feeling of spending time in vain , make me appreciate the moments when life is not so bad.
Oh, but it was definitely better in those days . Then I thought of Yarrows and the exact words came from Mary Hopkins
Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do
Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days !
Then the busy years went rushing by us
We lost our starry notions on the way
If by chance I'd see you in the tavern
We'd smile at one another and we'd say
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

Just tonight I stood before the tavern
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me………………
Oh my friend we're older but no wiser
For in our hearts the dreams are still the same
Those were the days, oh yes, those were the days

PS: No this is not what I will write in my Julie Andrews like list to DG (NAAA). I will find words to tell the tale – my tale, for that .

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy....

Hey was it not very hot just yesterday? Were we not fanning ourselves desperately while sipping iced tea only the other day ? And today morning suddenly I sighted the first shawls and sweaters on co-commuters. All at once, it is not comfortable to get up from bed in the mornings or to go swimming in the pool . It seems winter has approached and its time to sip ginger tea at every possible opportunity. Time to take out the woollen sweaters from the closet. Time for huddling together. For warmth. For comfort. Visible breath, which amused me endlessly as a child . Even the topics of conversation have changed. Winter time is as much a festival time as it is a time for shopping. You want to be out in the sun for every big or small task. Seasonal sweets of jaggary and til are appearing on the confectionery shops . I am again feeling envious of people enjoying the sunshine while I concentrate on the files and figures of Income Tax in this close office room .Evenings are foggy and sunshine is pleasant . I think of Eliza of My fair Lady asking for only "a room somewhere,far away from the cold night air,with one enormous chair."to brave the winter . But then she also dreams of "Lots of chocolate for me to eat.Lots of coal makin' lots of 'eat.Warm face, warm 'ands, warm feet. so loverly sittin' absobloominlutely still.I would never budge 'till spring Crept over the windowsill." Yeah that is really something to ask for the winters !

Its strange that my visualisation of winter is different for different places . When I think of winter in Lucknow, I always remember sitting in my lawns with winter flowers all around, but for Shimla it is biting chill of snow melting and a of ice-cream cone at the Mall. And whenever I think of winters in Calcutta I think of Christmas celebrations and the amazing range of sweets available only in these months. Of course in plains the winter months are very uncomfortable , specially if one has to go out for work and if there is so sun for days . While I prepare myself for the notorious 'dilli ki sardi ' I can't help feeling good about it too. After all I missed this kind of northern winters for last 4 years in Calcutta . I cherish all the memories of winters in various cities I have lived so far but interestingly,my most favourite winter imagination is of what I found in BBC adaptations of Victorian novels. I long to see the harsh winters in the English countryside and the joy of sunshine after that. But on second thoughts I feel that I may find it very romatic but that must have been a difficult time for people who actually lived in that period.Speically for the poor and the workers . Here is poem describing winter time and the winter-y concerns. It is by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,
A blood-red orange, sets again.
Before the stars have left the skies,
At morning in the dark I rise;
And shivering in my nakedness,
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.
Close by the jolly fire I sit
To warm my frozen bones a bit;
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore
The colder countries round the door.
When to go out, my nurse doth wrap
Me in my comforter and cap;
The cold wind burns my face, and blows
Its frosty pepper up my nose.
Black are my steps on silver sod;
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;
And tree and house, and hill and lake,
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Loss

A very dear friend lost his father recently. This was fourth such case in my friend-circle. When one reads about such deaths in newspapers or on general discussions they seem so small insignificant incidents. They sound very much part of the natural system . But when something like this happens in your own family or in your friends’ you feel very differently. God forbid if you yourself happen to lose a parent, it’s a tragedy beyond comparison . It is one of the downsides of being an adult that you come closer to the loss of your parents. We all know it has to happen one or the other day…but one can’t be really prepared for it. My grandfather died when my father was already in his fifties . They had a typical father son relationship with disagreements combined with fondness and very little talk. But in the last few days when my father was alone with his old man the relationship changed dramatically. I never saw my father being so emotional before. Probably for the first time since his achieving adulthood , he had time to pause rest of the world and spend time with his father. He came to know a very different person from what he remembered from his teenage days. My grandfather’s life struggles, his ideals, his poetry all appeared before him in a very different light . And then the inevitable happened. Papa grieved the death much more than he himself expected. For rest of his life he kept his father’s last scrawlings on his study table .
Unlike this relationship, both I and my sister were always very close to our father. He was always our best friend, our favourite punching bag and our ideal .In the year 2000, just after I wrote the main exams for civil services , my father was detected with cancer. It was already in an advance stage and we were told that it is now a matter of days- and so it was . I can never express in words how I felt in those 15 days of his illness and 8 years since then. When he breathed his last, we were holding his hands. We were too numbed by the shock that for days we could not accept that this has happened. The world around us was, of course creating enough nuisances to keep us away from the estimation of the loss. But can you ever measure the loss? It’s like erasing a basic postulate of your world. It’s like telling you in the middle of a jigsaw puzzle that the rules have changed. Its like removing a thick layer of blanket from your shoulders and exposing you to the cold of a winter night. It is worse.
It is generally believed that people get over all pains and that time is a healer in such cases, but I disagree. You just learn to live in an incomplete world. In a world where at every important stage your mind will ask, how your father/mother would have reacted to this . You never realise the importance of having your parents around till the day you lose one of them. Loving one’s parents is so different from any other relationship. You love your father even if he never made any money . You like your mother even if she has a buckteeth . Some time back I got a mail-forward presentation on how the relationship with parents change with time. As toddlers we love them unconditionally, as kids we look upto them as ideals , as teenagers occasionally we feel embarrassed by them , as adults we feel they don’t know anything about the world and then when the fear of losing them sets in , we again want to be kids holding their hands tight , with the conviction of a small boy trying to stop the weather with a stick in hand .
My granddad , an urdu poet, wrote in one of his poems –
हमारी मौत भी एक मौज है दरिया-ऐ- हस्ती में / बस एक गोत्ता लगाना है यहाँ डूबे वहां निकले !
( our life is like a wave in the sea of existence , its just a matter of a jump, you dive here and rise there ) . I find consolation in the thought .

Monday, September 29, 2008

Crash and the Blast

I woke up disturbed that Saturday morning. It was partly to do with less sleep and partly to the movie I was watching on friday evening. Crash- the movie which won several awards including Oscars is very provocative and sensitive at the same time. It stirs something very basic inside you ….questions the stereotypes we built around us in a multi ethnic society …and leaves many questions unanswered. The movie follows few characters living in Los Angles in a span of 36 hours and chronicles the racial tensions , their volatile interactions and their struggles to come out of the distrust and fear of one another. It searches the grey area between the victim and aggressor , black and white ….where there are no permanently right answers and people collide into each others’ lives helplessly playing both victim and aggressor simultaneously. The images were still fresh in my mind next morning. Though the movie is about post 9/11 America the comparison with any multi ethnic society comes naturally.
To lighten up my mood I decided to go round the markets. Not for any real shopping but just to come out of the gloom and fill in myself with more pleasant smells and sounds than a bullet shot. But it was not to be so ….half way into a south Delhi market I got a desperate call form my husband to come back. There was yet another Saturday bomb blast in Delhi. This time in Mehrauli. Once again killing several innocent people including a child who lend an innocent helping hand to the bombers by trying to pick the tiffin case in which bomb was planted. The news means several things to me. My weekly shopping at nearby mall goes for a six. My husband will be late from work-as his news channel would be following the blast and after blast coverage till midnight and my dear friend Rani would be patrolling the Delhi roads with her policemen whole night to prevent any further mishap. More than these a sad taste will cover over our weekend . In brief a weekend wasted for no fault of any of us.
On my way home the crash images again started flashing in my mind. Its the same distrust and fear that is seeping in our society too. Hindus fearing Muslims, Muslims fearing Hindus, Dalits fearing upper castes ,Biharis fearing Marathis and so on. Anyone can put a bomb anywhere in Indian cities . We have just too many crowed public places to protect. So far after a blast the city resumes its normal pace within few days …in a very helpless , very resigned way . But the images never fade in the mind. With each such incident the level of distrust goes higher and higher . With all these recent bombings by Muslim hardliners, are we not going to lose all trust on Muslims-all Muslims, though we know that most of them are innocent victims of these mishaps like rest of us. But how to distinguish between the two groups . As a friend commented the other day , if anyone is planting a bomb in a children’s park- there is only one explanation . There is mind that is mad! No amount of brainwashing, philosophy of Jihad , poverty or lack of education can justify this act. Its unfortunate that intolerance between groups is increasing day by day. In my growing up years we were hardly conscious of the other person’s caste or religion…but no more now. The defining limits of Hindu and Muslim clusters are getting more and more distinct. Its very unfortunate that several secular features of language and arts are also getting religious-ised . The Ganga Jamuni culture of Hindustan is almost lost . What is worse is that we always find reasons to spread hatred against each other . Its not only Hindu-Muslim, There are also regional, castist and ethnic colours of hatred and terror .
What cause one an serve with such random killings . Its such a waste of human life and effort . The future seems rather gloomy . It appears that soon we would be suspecting each stranger in the vicinity and no unknown face will get friendly smile from the neighbours and colleagues .I feel very upset and aggrieved with these changes . How are we going to survive with such ridiculously low tolerance and respect for one another? After all , moving with the speed of life…we are bound to collide into each other .

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

We must kill Mickey Mouse!

If you are shocked by the title of this post please read this news item . Mickey Mouse must die for the good of Islam, a leading Saudi cleric said last month in a broadcast on al-Majd TV. This same cleric on August 10 had denounced the Beijing Olympics as the "bikini Olympics," saying the immodest dress of women athletes was "satanic" and issued a fatwa against women's participation in the Olympics as the games were also "satanic". In 2005 he denounced soccer, saying the short pants worn by players "reveal nakedness." He called for a ban on women's sports and public exercise as to do so would require them to don "tight fitting, short" tunics that were offensive to Muslim decorum.
In the present case he was actually asked to state the Islamic legal teaching on mice. He responded that mice were called "little corrupters" in Sharia and it was permissible to kill them at all times. "The mouse is one of Satan's soldiers and is steered by him," he explained, adding that should a mouse come in contact with food, the food must be disposed of as the mouse is an impure creature. "According to Islamic law, the mouse is a repulsive, corrupting creature," he said, adding that he was concerned that popular culture had given mice an undeserved positive image. "How do you think children view mice today - after Tom and Jerry?" he asked. "Even creatures that are repulsive by nature, by logic, and according to Islamic law have become wonderful and are loved by children. Even mice. Mickey Mouse has become an awesome character, even though according to Islamic law, Mickey Mouse should be killed in all cases."
I know nothing about Sharia or any other law but I know a lot about ‘Tom and Jerry’ , Mickey mouse and other cartoon characters. A devoted viewer of cartoons I feel they are the highest form of creativity in today’s media world. I came to know about this fatwa on Mickey mouse through my husband, who in the news room of his TV channel accidentally come across this wire. This ‘news’ was received in the news room with much amusement and everybody laughed at the issue…everybody except one colleague of his. This fellow argued that the cleric is asking for the right thing – for wrong reasons. He agreed with the rest that such ridiculous interpretation of any scripture is foolish but argued that Mickey mouse and the entire gang of cartoon characters are responsible for erasing local and regional flavours of upbringing of children. His arguement does have some strength . There are very good attempts these days to tell children about our cultural characters like Hanuman, Tenali raman and Gopal Bhand etc through their ‘disney-isation’ . How true are these animated versions to the folk tales they are claim to be originated from? Don’t you feel that animated avatars of chota Birbal, Tenali raman and Hanuman do the same stunts as Aladdin and Mickey mouse?For that matter Disney’s Aladdin is also miles away from the original character from Arabian Nights . Stories for these are mostly written for American kids and they are full of contemporary American notions . Disney on its side is trying to enhance local elements in its characters. Disney princesses are no longer always blonde with blue eyes and their characters at times speak with different accents. But is this enough? Despite being a die-hard fan of animations and all these Disney creations I can not acquit them from the charge of killing our local culture.
On second thoughts …is it Disney or is it market ? Market which ensures that world over kids eat similar potato chips , drink same soft drinks and watch similar sitcoms. Market which ensures that all popular English (read American ) sitcoms are available in their Hindi versions too. No not through dubbing ….an entire new series with Indian faces and Indian setup but with the copied concept and script. Let us face the truth – these are a hit with their targeted clientele . These animated versions are cute and there is a lot of creativity in the series also . No wonder kids are wearing Harry Potter T shirts and cuddling Chota-hanuman ‘ stuff toys with equal fondness . Even Indianised version of Batman and Superman- Krrish and Shaktiman go well with the children…even when they are selling biscuits and chewing gums through advertisements . So is it a good bargain that our kids know about our mythical characters but only through a Disney filter? More importantly can we stop the forces of globalisation to make everything-including our myths, history and folktales, as they deem fit. I really have no answer for that. I strongly feel that Mickey mouse should not be killed but should Mickey meet T-shirt wearing Hanuman in Akbar’s court …..I really don’t think that is a good idea either.

PS: If you wish to read more about my views on animations in India from the industry point of view read this article .

Friday, September 5, 2008

The sophisticated sychophant

"... this man, who has crawled and crept through life, wounding the hands he licked, and biting those he fawned upon: this sycophant, who never knew what honour, truth, or courage meant...
— Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, Ch. 43

Its not that there are no such people in other organisations , sectors and places but just that I encounter this species most in Delhi. They are found everywhere - in all age groups and in all surroundings. What distinguishes them so distinctly is a very polite gesture on face(nearly always) and a wish to please . They call it courtesy , I call it sycophancy . In action what they do is nothing unusual, its the reason why they do so makes all the difference. I find it strange that if someone has died in the family of a service officer I hardly know why should I go and convey my condolences , or if a BIG boss( with whom i hardly meet otherwise) has got a further promotion I should I take an appointment to congratulate him/her. But many others do it as ' a matter of courtesy'. I am even fine with this courtesy bit if it is genuine. But how do you justify the reaction if it is exactly opposite of what they really think. You hate the person , call him a blood sucker and such other words but would not mind going to him with a bouquet in hand on his birthday or promotion.

Now the big question- or as I said, the element making it sycophancy is the reason . I feel( though everyone vehemently decline ) its for career goodies, business promotion and in general keeping superiors in 'good humour' . Its so strange that when one joins a profession one feels he/she can rely on his/her skills and competency but within few years even the so called smart ones start believing in factors which can be loosely clubbed in the category of sophisticated sycophancy. For some it is so much a matter of habit that they do not even realise that they are going overboard . I too face it with my subordinates . Imagine after the lousiest presentation of my life this young officer comes to my room and request for a copy of the most 'wonderful presentation he has ever seen'. I need not even look at his face . His words betray their meaning . The tone is all made up and the only intention is to get noticed .
Have you ever noticed what are the commandments in a sycophant's world? Let me list out few- the sirs always right and the ma'am always give very appropriate advices. They always have very bright ideas on everything from gardening to parenting and from governance to global warming. Bosses always have the best taste in music and wine and their offspring are lovely little angels even if they break your car's window while playing . Dare you contradict them- how foolish! how very uncool ! Argument with a superior on anything related/unrelated with work......nah ...that's blasphemy .
These days I wonder whether all these tricks pay off in the end. My answer is yes and no . Yes if the person you are trying to please is also as dumb as you'd like him to be and no , if he has a better discretion. I would still feel that if a superior falls for such false praise and respect he is not worthy of any real one. Why should I lower my dignity to cater such a person's ego?After all those who are worth praise and respect would see through these rituals easily . One always come across stories of people who got a plush posting or some other 'goody' by being his boss's slave but I don't feel that so far I fared badly by speaking my mind , not indulging in such rituals of praise and even differing with bosses also . In fact I was lucky to find bosses who even after fighting with me on work related issues always rated me high in performance appraisals. I can say this with some certainty as I too as a boss can not think too positive of people who do not miss a single occasion of praising me , my dress, my way of working and of all handwriting!! At times I feel sorry for the celebrities and people on top of their fields of work . There are of course people who despite attaining great heights lack great depths (in fact they form the majority )but for the rest what a torture it must be to always be on guard against such false compliments and admirers.
Last week after another round of promotions of bigwigs of our department when a colleague asked me if I would care to come on a 'mission congratulations' to a big boss I told her to ask the old man on my behalf how is the scene from up there . How many bald heads he can see from the top? She was obviously scandalised by my response .

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Learning Unlearning and all that …..

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
Alvin Toffler
Yesterday sitting in an interview board of Staff selection Commission I met with about a dozen such illiterates holding degrees from some of the well known Universities/colleges. How would you react if a first class masters’ degree holder from University of Delhi for English (hon) failed to recite a single poem of Shakespeare..or Keats…or Shelly ? The chairman of my board, a retired bureaucrat , was not much shocked with the blank and confused look of the interviewee . I am sure he must have seen a lot more such samples during his thirty odd years in the government. But with just 8 years of experience , I found it difficult to believe as among the interviewees we had History graduates unable to tell the significance of 1707 AD as the beginning year for –Modern Indian History. There were people working as tax assistants unable to distinguish between direct and indirect taxes and MBAs (shockingly from my own university) who could not explain two factor theory of motivation . Probably one can let go of ignorance about theoretical aspects of a subject studied but how do you ignore the poor language skills? Or ignorance about the world around us ? All candidates were using terms like naxalites, Maoists, insurgency, terrorism, fundamentalist organisation loosely. Neither they knew the difference between these nor were they aware of its correct usage. Another senior professor on the interview board informed me that the situation is almost similar even in Civil services interviews. His reading was that one can get most degrees without much knowledge of the subject or command over the medium of instruction . I can’t blame it to students. Most of them were from small towns and were trying hard to break the ceiling between Bharatand India . If some of my friends are to be believed , in corporate sector too there is acute shortage of qualified staff . My sister informs me that in big IT firms we have engineers on roll who don’t know even the most elementary logic and in my own office I find Hindi translators with abysmal knowledge of the language .
My first reaction was of disbelief followed by anger …..gradually I realised it is not surprising at all. Where is the scope for imagination? Of taking interest in a subject ? Of learning for learning sake ? It is simply a stepping stone to get into a secure livelihood . Don’t you come across students ‘preparing for competitions’ asking about which subjects are ‘in’ and are considered scoring these days . You get to meet parents of school going children inquiring about which branch has better chances of getting a job. We have our school boards making examination patterns more and more objective to ensure less stress , better marks and …err..poor language and expression skills for students . We also have our syllabus designed by barely eligible educationists. Years back I found a classic case in this regard when my father started teaching English to our Milkman’s son who was doing his 10th from UP Borad with Agriculture stream. The boy was totally disinterested in opening the book . My father diagnosed the problem after a while . The prose and poetry chosen for his compulsory English textbook was devoid of any sensitivity to his surroundings. A village boy of UP studying amidst poverty and illiteracy of elders was to go through essays about English Parishes, Wordsworth’s Lucy Grey and even ‘La belle dam sans merci’ to learn a language still foreign to him. Things and scenes explained there were so strange to him that they hardly made any sense to his mind. My father was so agitated that he started compiling a book for this boy’s reading which included stories by RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond and poems of Sarojini Naidu. The boy found this interesting. But to pass his exam , he still had to mug up the ‘foren’ poems and texts with which he can’t relate to . The teacher of their school was also a fresh graduate quite uncomfortable in English and a product of the same system. Naturally like all other classmates he was keen to take refuge of ‘guidebooks’ written in awful language and ‘key books’ and guess papers . All his friends were just mugging up part of these booklets to ensure passing marks – for most of them no doors of jobs will open without mandatory school degrees and school degrees will not be obtained without resorting to these horrid keybooks and guessbooks. Many would not even buy the original textbook to save some money. What knowledge of subject we can expect from these kids in future?
This is not only for village students , even my colleagues complain that their kids studying in best public schools are discouraged to innovate while solving maths sum. They have to ‘learn by heart’ even the explanations of poems and steps of maths equations solving. No scope for expression even in literature subjects and no question of deviation in solving mathematics. On our word processors we have spell checks to ensure correct spellings and tools to ensure correct grammar. There are interactive TV channels to help them with homework and still the quality of education from school to college is nose-diving . Degrees like MBAs, MCAs and engineering are available from Never-Heard-Before institutes and hordes of our young men and women are making big with international companies. I am not for ridiculing these youngsters. They are simply a product of their education system and surroundings . It is the same culture that forces our young sales executives to speak in English and wear ties in the hot summer days to ‘make an impression’ while selling goods…however uncomfortable it makes them . But next time you found the call centre executive faltering on a well rehearsed sentence or speaking nonsense – think about it seriously. Its about time we take a serious note on our education system. We must take our kids out of the obsession for marks catching techniques and encourage them to the good old ways of learning rather than just acquiring paper degrees . Or else let us be prepared to face a situation (already there in many government sector offices) where we have workers incapable of understanding the work assigned to them for want of elementary knowledge of the field .

Monday, August 18, 2008

Yarrows forever ...

Its beautiful, its majestic and its charming ……and much better –its home. This place just declines to change ( and thank God for that!) . It’s a still moment in the river of time- a droplet that has frozen amidst the Shivalik ranges of Himalayas for ages to come and admire . Generations of my service officers have passed out of this place-Yarrows, our alma mater and much more .A place you can’t help falling in love at the first sight …and keep doing that again and again for after thousands sights too . I am here once again after 3 years of separation and this time I have a different role to play. But it was not the official work that was in my mind ever since this trip was scheduled. It was only and only , my memories of this place . Shimla –a city I love in all seasons and Yarrows- our royal home at Shimla. ­­­­
Its difficult to list out things and sights related to Yarrows, which I miss once I am out in the big bad world. I miss the serene smile of Buddha sitting calmly beneath the walnut tree, I miss the camellia shrub that will start blooming next month onwards, I miss the sunset behind the pines and I miss the chuk-chuk of the toy train passing from the glen valley. More that anything I miss the warm security I felt here during my probation days, the fun and gaiety of the place, the friends I made over here, my long walks to Annandale and to Viceregal Lodge and of course my very own room no.11 inside Yarrows.
When we came here first , some stories of sighting Mr. Jinnah’s ghost were passed on to us. Well, a ghost in a hill cottage is always welcome, it is almost a status symbol for any house worth its name in history books and most certainly Yarrows deserved one. Mr. Jinnah’s stature too is befitting our Yarrows’s glory but you may ask, why would Mr. Jinnah’s ghost would choose this far off place to haunt. Of course, this was once his summer house and it is said he spent his honeymoon with his beautiful wife Rati over here. But then, the late leader definitely inhabited many more beautiful houses in his lifetime. I guess his ghost would at best visit this place once in a while during summer months to refresh the memories of happy days associated with the place. It is more likely that there are ghosts of old boys and girls of my service visiting the place to relive the magic that once pervaded their lives.
And once in Yarrows what is one suppose to do but to take a seat behind the window and watch the beauty of deodars all around, the colourful play of sunrays and cloud formation and the gorgeousness of mountain flowers all around. If that is not enough for you the option of going out for a walk is always there (even in the midnight!). Yarrows is after all just 10 minutes away from ViceRegal Lodge the former residence of Viceroys. Another ritual marking my Yarrows-years is that of ‘mall-ing’.i.e. going to the mall. This we did religiously every other day. Mall, scandal point, the Ridge and the ever-beautiful Christ Church ……that was the pilgrim’s route. This was of course completed with mandatory stops at Baljees’ for hot Gulab Jamuns, Devicos’ for snacks and Beekays for soups and pizzas.
Its impossible not to feel nostalgic while in Shimla, each building has a history and a couple of stories linked with it. At every turn I feel the presence of Rudyard Kipling and his poetry …. and every sight seems to remind of a similar sight of a bygone age when India was ruled from this town. Almost half way from Yarrows to the mall stands the most impressive castle of the town(Ok…second most impressive…after Vice Regal Lodge) –Gortan Castle , the building that house our Shimla Office , looks like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle , It is a picture just out of a biscuit tin . Then there is the Retreat, Knockdrin, Kennedy House, the Observatory hill , Strawberry Hill and many more places to visit and admire. There is nothing more interesting than going out for a walk. Those of us who have read the wonderful book on Shimla written by Rajaa Bhasin can even relate the place with history. I can just go to the Viceregal Lodge and spent an evening admiring the place. Its a pity that till date they are unable to arrange a full fledged tour to the place for tourists. The place is choked with History’s mysteries-few true and few made up stories about the building are always in currency at Shimla. The romance of the place is magnified by the lovely weather. This place is beautiful in all seasons and in all months but I love it most when clouds surround the valley in a white robe. Except for few days in the winter, Shimla weather is always pleasant. No wonder the Britons felt at home over here. "Like meat, we keep better here [in the hills].", said Emily Eden about Shimla . I can paraphrase this for the Yarrows probationers –“Like Apple blossoms we bloom naturally over here.” The probationers-God bless them, they are always the same. It is such fun to meet these ‘owner-residents of yarrows’. It’s a pity that this air of confidence, this twinkle of intelligence in the eyes combined with a blessed ignorance towards the world outside would be lost once they are out of the place. But perhaps, that is life. We learn and unlearn traits to keep the fine balance. Today I heard a horrid suggestion that this place should be taken away from probationers. Some committee of architect/preservers found half the things in furnishing and structure, not gelling with the place . Who can explain it to them that this is not just any heritage building but our home? We love its imperfections as much as one loves one’s mother even if she has a buckteeth.
I always quote this Beatles’ song for expressing my feeling about Yarrows now….for want of better words, here I go again .
There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All this places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all"

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Story of Stuff

It was nothing less than a paradigm shift for us. We entered our Kolkata home with just 2 chairs , 3 what-nots and 3 book racks in it . We left it yesterday with only these articles….and before I forget to mention, in between there were 56 cartons of what can generally termed as ‘stuff’ created in last 4 years and which was sent with movers and packers yesterday morning. It was unbelievable. How and when we managed to surround ourselves with so much clutter. While packing I found half a dozen picture frames of all sizes , about 10 pen set (never used) , bed sheets we didn’t recall buying, books we never read and even cutlery sets and silver bowls for which we have no use in decades . To begin with we had a big house and nothing to fill it with and today we desperately hope to get a bigger house to fit in our ‘stuff’ . The best part about this stuff is that one never realizes when it is growing around you and one fine day, when you feel it is time to clear up the clutter , each article looks so useful and so beautiful.
Inspired by a very thought provoking documentary narrated by Anne Leonard called ‘The story of Stuff’ my friend Rani has stopped buying things…specially clothes. I admire her determination but feel weak at heart whenever I find myself surrounded by beautiful things in a store. My wishlist of articles to get never gets smaller. In fact I thank God that I don’t have enough money to buy all the things I desire to get or else the situation would have been worse. Shopping undoubtedly is a panacea for many a ills . It can cure boredom, depression and even anger . It calms down the mind and distract attention like magic. But the outcome of such shopping sprees is disastrous. I always end up buying things I don’t need . Long back my former boss gave us the a sane advice of not buying books to read them. He gave example of his own life where he has so far donated about 10000 books as he was unable to carry the load from one transfer to another. But with transfer veterans like me this sounds rather funny. Well, if you count all the times I had to shift my belongings since childhood , it would be not less than 12. And we really liked ‘to carry our world with us’ on these transfers. Papa’s favorite cacti and mummy’s carefully grown pots included. I recall these incidents (much to the amusement of my husband) that truck was stopped midway to water the plants . We did manage well despite absence of professional movers and packers in those days. Since packing was mostly done by either family members or by domestic helps, it was an arduous exercise involving decision of what to go where , making lists(in two copies) for each box and numbering of boxes. For all you know the unpacking may take a while(due to non availability of Government quarters) and you may have to hunt for one particular item in between. But despite these precautions , true to the Murphy’s law of Packing , the item you need most urgently was always in the last box in the most inaccessible corner. These boxes(mostly wooden) were a permanent feature of our garages during the period of our stay at a place. They will be again called for when the next transfer was announced . But even with those amateur techniques there were very few casualties of packing-unpacking . Now imagine,talking of leaving books behind....I still have my comics in tact with me after 7-8 shifting since the days I read them last . Even the china and ceramics in my parents house are transfer veterans …and still in tact .
The story of our stuff in this present transfer episode is still only half told. The unpacking is yet to start and I can foresee all the vacant corners and the shining floor tiles disappearing under the furniture .But then this is the fun of transfers- it gives you an opportunity to rearrange your world .

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tune the Radio

I found an article in The Indian Express this morning about a place called Jhumri Tallaiyya which reminded me of my good old days of radio listening. The only claim to fame for this otherwise unknown town of Jharkhand is the huge number of song requests received from here on various radio stations like Radio Ceylon , Vividh Bharti etc. In the guest house where I am living these days, they usually have Worldspace radio tuned on in the dining hall. So mealtimes are once again very happy hours for an old radio addict like me. I always preferred Radio over TV because of its non- obstructiveness. You can continue doing your work and listening to music/news on radio for hours . Another reason leading to popularity of this medium is its unparalled reach . Be it the mountains or the remotest of village, islands or a city restaurant or even your own car or Taxi …radio’s reach is incomparable. Listening to radio while travelling is always in fashion. At times, I wonder if old radio clubs are still existing in small towns and cities as they used to be. These fan clubs of specific radio shows and radio stations can be termed a precursor of Orkut communities , as they were a great place to meet likeminded individuals . Radio was a craze in our school days .....Who in my generation can forget legendary Ameen Sayani and his popular show 'Binaca Geet mala'?
It was difficult for me to imagine a life without my little transistor radio in my school days. This small box was my companion , friend and closest confident. Whether I was doing my math homework or just taking a break from studies, going for a walk or counting sheep in those late night hours of insomnia, my radio was always with me in my teenage days. For many of us in those years, life without a radio was unthinkable. Even some of the best Hindi movie songs were picturised as a sequence where either Hero or heroine is singing it for All India Radio and the other one is listening to it.(Remember ‘Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi who barsaat ki raat..” or “Ek tha bachpan…(from Aashirwad)” or “Hum the jinke sahare ” or “ Tu is tereh se meri zindagi mein shamil hai” and many more.... ). It was a daylong companion for barbers, autorickshaw wallas , housewifes, college students and of course, lovers. I fully endorse the sentiment expressed by actress Amrita Singh(playing Chameli) in the movie Chameli ki Shaadi when in a love letter she writes to her beloved that in the moments of separation only your memories and Vividh Bharti songs are my consolation. There was a time when I was regular to at least 15 radio stations. Finding a new station was our favorite game . The content of the shows was as varied as possible . From bible lessons to Hindi or Urdu services of countries like Uzbekistan. Afghanistan or Germany and from Bollywood songs to BBC news …I enjoyed all of them. But the default station was of course, the commercial service of All India Radio, also known as Vividh Bharti. I am feeling almost nostalgic remembering those typical request a song (आप की फरमाइश) programs where the announcers will painstakingly read names of all listeners who have requested the song before playing the number. Interestingly, it was because of these programs that I heard the names of places like Majnu ka tila, Jumri Talaiyya and many more. In fact for years I thought these names were fictitious. There were always some favorite stations and some favorite programs. One of them was Urdu Service of All India Radio through which I learnt quite a lot of spoken urdu. Aha the usual greeting of adaab to 'Khabateen-o-hazrat' (Ladies and gentleman) and the polite reading of 'Tameel-e-Irshad( fulfilling the request song) of the samayeen( listners) . I still remember a wonderful program titled "आवाज़ दे कहाँ हैं ”(Call me where you are) which started after partition of India. Many people lost contact with their friends and relatives who migrated to India/Pakistan . The program used to play very old songs of 40s and 50s along with letters where people were asking their loved ones lost during partition to contact them . There were cases where the program did manage to unite lost friends and people came specially to India to meet their friends . Another program based on the memories of yesteryears was “धरती को आकाश पुकारे”. Both these shows started with two superhit songs with these words from old Hindi movies ‘Anmol ghadi’ and ‘Dharti Ko Akash Pukare’. The haunting voices of Noor jahan and Mubarak begum made the longing and the pain of separation sound so much more real. It was lovely to hear about those pre-independence days and somehow while listening to these program and many others on AIR-Urdu service, places like Lahore , Rawalpindi or Islamabad appeared very close . The station had equal number of listeners across the border too. Similarly some names of announcers and presenters like Mariyam Apa, Tahira APa, Mohd.Yunus etc sounded almost like a family. I don’t think people who started their radio listening only after advent of FM will be able to appreciate the quality of content of these programs. Those were the days, after all, when presenters’ narrative were still sensible (sometimes with sprinklings of urdu couplets or hindi poetry and on others with interesting trivia ). There are no loud RJs, talking nonsense all the time, not much of Ads either (only the famous Vicko Vajradanti, Indian Oil), and not only the chart busters-the evergreen stuff, you found all the dark horses, black sheeps, under dogs songs of the Hindi Cinema from time immemorial too. Some of the songs I am unable to find anywhere else even how. You wouldn't get a chance to come across so many songs in your life time, VB is such a treasure house. In fact I would really attribute, my knowledge of songs, lyricists, Music Directors, Playback singers, films and productions to VB . There was another favorite called Hawa Mahal. It was about a one act radio play every evening for 15 minutes. I and sister were crazy about it. The pleasure we got from listening these 15 minute plays was many times more than the current TV sitcoms . Then there was an evergreen hit show of Vividh Bharti called ‘Chayyageet’ . In this 30 minute show , every night from 10PM to 10.30 PM , a presenter will play 5-6 songs based on a theme. There was amazing variety of themes- it may be about a particular director’s movies for one show or about songs played on piano on the other, about songs picturised in Kashmir in one show and about songs with foreign words in it the next.. People used to put in a lot of effort and research before presenting the show. The other favorite shows were Jayamala(a special show for army men where a celebrity would present his/her favorite songs), Pitara (variety show which included women’s program to Radio play and from instrumental music to political talk) and Chitralok – the morning show of newly released flicks. It was definitely a heavily entertainment loaded package but in the modern lingo it was –infotainment in the true sense. Even today if I hear the authoritative voice ‘This is All India Radio the News read by….”, I want to stop immediately and listen. There was another show for youngsters called ‘Yuv-vani’ and its quiz show on thursdays was in our ‘not-to-be-missed’ list for years.
Taking my relationship with radio on the next level, in 2002 I got my first posting in Akshwani Bhawan, New Delhi and for a very brief period edited a business news magazine called 'Market Mantra' on AIR-FM-II ( now called FM-Gold) .I was part of Indian Information Service in those days. Being inside that building was like going to a temple. The work culture was amazing. Despite much degradation in standards, in AIR newsroom and recording rooms you can still find a newsreader/editor calling a friend or consulting an embassy to get the correct pronunciation of a foreign name. There were legendary presenters, people who’s voices become their best introductions for millions of listeners and whose style was copied by many future RJs . There were some people well established in their careers otherwise but working as casual announcers/news readers just to taste the romance of being on airwaves. O yes, it is intoxicating.As insider, I also got a chance to see the archives which can any day make a music lover faint with excitement. From the 40s and 50s the AIR archives have a unparalleled collection of Indian Music-including classical, folk ,regional and of course, the film music.
My radio listening habits were almost lost when I got busy with my career of a civil servant but my connection with Radio continued surprisingly . This time, to complete the circle, I got my first major assignment of a Performance Audit on Revenue Generation at AIR.. Now the focus was changed for me as I was certifying their accounts and counting revenue which the radio station received from sponsorship of Chayyageet and Jayamala. Suddenly a realization dawned that in this changing world the content part of radio was no longer the criteria of its success. It was cut throat competition with mushrooming private FM channels and the quality was stuff being aired no longer bothered the organization. Choice of words and their correct pronunciation was no longer stressed upon. Of course, there were some old timers still continuing with the well formed traditions of the place but the charm and enjoyment of being on radio was lost. New People joining the recording rooms were just doing a job-the feeling of responsibility or being a public broadcaster were absent . Even FM radio was more of a revenue generation venture than an infotainment channel . But even if it is just a shadow of the original, the old charm is yet to wear out completely .
These days the first thing I do in the morning after pushing my morning alarm back , is tuning the good old Vividh Bharti on my Dish TV. It is almost like going back to my childhood. familiar style of presentation and the similar sounds of opening music. The songs, of course, have changed with time. The emphasis is now more on new songs. At times the discretion of selecting right songs for the right time and mood is also missing but still there are few shows maintaining the standards . I religiously tune to them in the late nights and early mornings. I think now time is ripe for me to end the years of separation with my childhood friend . I have promised myself that I will subscribe to the digital satellite radio as soon as I get a house in Delhi. I guess its now time for me to sing “Awaz de kahan hai….” for my lost companion, my radio.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ah Banabhatta !

I met his ghost once again yesterday . This time on the stage of National School of Drama. He is one person I could not help falling in love with, ever since I read his writings for the first time. His prose is flowery, exaggerated and difficult to sail through-charming nevertheless. He must have been so proud of his knowledge and his wordplay – or may be he realized this is the core competency where no one can beat him, not even the most celebrated poet/dramatist Kalidas. I am talking about Banabhatta , the Sanskrit prose writer, the creator of Kadambari and Harshcharitam , a court poet of Harshavardhan . A writer who defied all norms and established ways of poetry writing in his times and naturally got equal numbers in admirer and critics . Even today most critics find his prose so ornamented and so difficult that they chose to forget him in comparison to other more lucid texts . Bana must have got a similar reaction in his times too. But if his prose is any indication of his personality, he was unaffected with such criticism. He was not writing for people with just enough knowledge of the language. He demands for a knowledgeable audience who can marvel at his ability of figurative speech and his command of language, his clever use of words and his understanding of many arts and crafts. His writings may have complex themes narrated in even more complex language but the descriptions are amazing. He can easily take three to four printed pages in describing one small characteristic of a tree or an Ashram. His similes and metaphors knew no end. He would liberally draw comparisons from all possible subjects and themes. No wonder even one of his severest critic could not help exclaiming his outstanding detailed description of anything usual or unusual by saying-“Banochishtam Jagat sarvam” ( Entire world is just a leftover of Bana’s descriptions).
Savour one specimen of his art Princess Kadambari is sending the following love-message to her lover: ( I am translating it for the benefit of my readers)
"What message can I send to you? 'You are very dear to me', will be tautological. 'I am yours', will be a silly proposition. 'I have deep affection for you', will be the talk of a prostitute. 'Without you I cannot live', will be a contradiction to actuality. 'I am overtaken by Cupid', this will be impertinent. 'I have been forcibly abducted', this will be impudence of a captive girl. 'You must come', this will be expressive of pride, on account of good luck. 'I come of my own accord', this will be fickleness of a woman. 'This slave is not devoted to anybody else', this will be my meanness to report my own devotion. 'I do not send message for fear of refusal', this will be bringing to sense a senseless person. 'I shall suffer terrible pains in case I lead an undesired life', this will be excessive familiarity. 'You will come to know of my love through (my) death', this will be an impossibility".

The Kadambari is one of the best romantic fictions of seventh century . An imaginative romantic story of love, technically in the 'katha' form, the novel transcends the bounds of mortal existence and moves through three lives till the deep and passionate love finally attains its desired fulfilment. In this marvellous texture, men and demigods, earth and regions beyond, the natural and the supernatural, are all happily blended together. Love, curses, transformation of gods into demigods and demigods into men and of men into animals and birds in successive births with the love affair continuing through such successive births, surprise and complex situations and various similar devices are introduced in the construction of the plot.
Being fascinated by his choice of stories, his daring moves of trying new styles and his uncaring text , I wanted to know more about Banabhatta the person. In the beginning of Harshcharitam, which most probably is the first biography of its type, the writer, contrary to the popular trait of modesty and anonymity about one’s own life gives a brief sketch of his family and life. He says that he was born in one of the most pious and famed brahmin family of Vatsyayana clan. His grandfather and father were well known pandits of their times but he turned out to be a black sheep in this family. He was undisciplined , irresponsible and kept bad company of vagabonds. He tried hand in various professions – from running a drama troupe to faking as an astrologer, from gambling to trade and much more . He travelled far and wide with artists and vagrants during his carefree days of homelessness, experienced many good ,bad and ugly faces of life and finally landed in the court of King Harsha.
Except for his own self introduction, not much is available about him from any authentic source. There are, of course, stories in circulation about his uncommon life and ideas but it is difficult to measure truth in those. I was craving for more details about him and by chance came across this book titled ‘Banabhatta Ki Atmakatha’ ( Autobiography of Banabhatta’ written by Hazari Prasad Dwivedi. It was just after my 10th standard and I greedily read the fiction. It was of course a fiction written in an autobiographical way about Banabhatta. Taking hints from his own descriptions of events and things the writer carved out an extraordinary love story. I know for sure that the entire story is not true- as there is a definite element of very modern values in it but it was impossible for me to ignore the moving account of a kidnapped Greek princess being rescued by a powerless and homeless poet Bana . There are many other fantastic aspects of the story except the name of Banabhatta associated with it . It is perhaps one of the best love tales written in Hindi literature.
Yesterday I got a chance to watch the stage adaptation of the book at NSD.I was wondering how will they manage to play the unsaid emotions, the poetry and the complexity of context on stage but the play left me dumbfounded. Creativity definitely is an endless thing. It was a play full of energy, colours, music and fabulous performance...almost magical to me . Theatre definitely ,I am sure, is a far superior medium than TV or Cinema. It is so personal, so spontaneous and so overwhelming. Ever since the performance I have been thinking of Banabhatta again and again. How perilous was life of a poet –an unconventional one, in those days. A life amidst the politics of the day, a life bound by the social customs and a desperate need to earn a livelihood...a thirst to create an audience for his work. How it is for anyone breaking the set norms in any society, in any field?
There is a well-known, interesting statement in Sanskrit, involving a play on words(a very apt tribute to this master of words) : Kādambari rasajnānām āhāropi na rochate. It can be read to mean "While savoring (the contents of) 'Kādambari' -the book, readers do not find interest in (eating) food", or "Oh, Kādambari, while savoring liquor, people do not find interest in (eating) food".
The real person Banabhatta may not be true to his fictionalised version but I would like to believe that Bana was a very romantic, very confident person-arrogant may be, bit snobbish too, but a master of words, commander of language and definitely a very open person who could assimilate the best of many streams in his prose without losing its individuality.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Untold Personal Tales of History

What are the most important facts about anybody’s life? To understand a person what all you need to know about him/her? Is it biodata facts like formal education, name of parents , place of birth etc etc or is it the religion and beliefs, philosophy and dreams, aspirations and fears ? Some time back me and husband had a heated discussion on the issue. It started when I found that while telling me about his favorite college professors , he was invariably enlightening me about their personal information too - affairs, unsuccessful marriages, rivalries, scandals etc. To my middle class mind this was quite revolting. Teachers and parents belong to a class of people about whom it is indecent to talk about private lives- unless of course, it is very morally upright and socially correct . Husband argued that these details are the most important lines in a person’s sketch, for they portray the ‘real’ person inside the body. The discussion ended after a while – but his argument remained with me. Even I grudgingly agreed in my mind later on that there is an element of truth in what he says.
Well, last night I again started thinking on these lines (this time alone) when I watched a beautiful movie called ‘Possession’ based on A.S. Byatt’s Booker winning novel of the same name. The novel/movie concerns the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, as revealed to present day academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Following a trail of clues from various letters and journals, poems and records, they attempt to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's past. It was interesting portrayal of how love and relationships found expression in different times and places, based on the contemporary standards of morality.
Then I started thinking about many historical figures like Harsha, Poet Kalidas, writer Banabhatta , Emperor Akbar , Babur or even for that matter mathematician Ramanujam . What do we know about their lives? While posing this question ,I am not limiting myself to affairs and relationships –for they may not necessarily be the most important factors in a person’s life. But what about his/her dreams, thoughts and emotions?How he/she felt about his/her family, friends, neighbours and how they reacted towards her. What do we know about that ? There have been some attempts in fiction to revive their lives through imagination but as far as I know there is not much of scholarly research. I wonder, if we even have documents to research with- I mean letters, writings etc. May be not in India at least .There must ahve been some books, manuscripts etc but whetehr we have preserved them ...well, i have my doubts . India had a rich oral tradition of tales but as for as serious history writing is concerned we were never good in preserving the letters /documents of even the great men and women of those ages. We actually know very little about the 'real' them. There are some characters whom I suspect of having lived a very interesting life- Razia Sultan for example. She was one of the few notable ladies who ruled parts of India in Sultanate period. If folklore is to be believed her life had a lot of shades including romance , betrayal, power , family feud and may be murder too. But has anyone bothered to reconstruct her life. Then Lilawati -a mathematician in ancient period- we know very little about her too . Same is perhaps the case with most writers and poets, philosopher and saints, kings and queens, generals and gurus of bygone ages. We have seen buildings made by them but we have not much of idea what went in their minds when they built these . And what about not so great common people around these celebrities. How about chronicling their lives? I can recall only one piece of fiction which belonged to this kind of research. It was Amitabh Ghosh’s ‘In an Antique Land’ The book is a brilliant hybrid, a subversive history in the guise of a traveller's tale. It tells the story of two Indians in Egypt. The first was a twelfth-century slave; the second is Amitav Ghosh, who stumbled upon the slave in the margins of letters that were written by the slave's master. His curiosity piqued - even ill-defined, the slave's presence in the records of medieval history was completely out of the ordinary - Ghosh journeyed to Egypt in 1980 to try to fill in the details of the slave's life. His search - which would last for ten years - began in a tiny village two hours from Alexandria where Ghosh found himself among people for whom 'the world outside was still replete with wonders of the unknown.' . These were zealous Muslims who found him, a Hindu, fascinating but utterly incomprehensible. Yet they willingly became his guides as he sifted through fact and conjecture, piecing together the slave's journey from India to Egypt. Ghosh discovered an 'elusive and mysterious acquaintance' in the slave, with whom he seemed to share, across eight hundred years, the experience of dislocation, And, moving between the present and the ancient past, between his own life and the slave's, Ghosh creates an exuberant multi-layered narrative, rich in detail and anecdote, that affords us not only an inkling of the slave's life, but also a unique understanding of the private life of the world that both he and the author came to inhabit.
I have read several pieces of fictions inspired by history or which had a bit of historical research in them but none as fascinating as these two-Possession and In an Antique Land. In Hindi there are books written by Rahul Sankrityayan, Mohan Rakesh or Hazari Prasad Dwivedi which try to mingle history with personal lives of real historical characters . More recently there was White Mughals by William Dalrymple. Then there are pure fictions trying of grasp the essence of an era(like period dramas)…but the kind of writings I am looking for are based on real literary research. Its good that at least for contemporary famous men and women the trend of biographies is catching up. But more often then not , these biographies specially the official ones and even autobiographies ,are not very close to the truth. I mean each one of us live life full of contradictions- things we are ashamed of, things which go against our present thinking and things we hate to admit we did. rarely do we find an account of these instances in carefully edited biographies. More often then not, they remain an exercise in glorification of a person's life-mostly through exaggeration and clever use of language.
Talking about these untold stories of history, I wonder what do we know about our family histories? Who bothers about that anyways…except perhaps some well known families may be . Except his name , profession and few other trivial facts about him, may be a picture or a painting - I hardly know about my own great grandfather . In India we do not give importance to letters, diaries or any other written work after the person is no more. Who cares for preserving it for coming generations and then more often then not, who in future generations bothers to look for these anyways. But then, don’t you at times want to live in a particular age and setup for a while…to know it better, to see how it smells and feels to be alive then. To feel their fears and to share their morality. . I for one, was very fascinated with Chanakya’s age, Buddha’s times, days when Banabhatta was alive .Its so bad that we hardly have many primary source/documents to know about the daily life of women of any ages of history -even in as near as 19th century India. As a student I searched many libraries to look for the personal details about them , not much was there – except the bare basics which history books inform us …..worse, there is perhaps no proper documentation to search it out also. Though the incorrigible romantic in me would like to believe that still somewhere in some manuscripts, in some books there will be these hidden stories waiting to reveal themselves. I sometimes envy the Europeans and Brits for their meticulous archives and Libraries . But then I can sense the similar desperation there also about the lives of e.g. Jesus Christ or Mary Magdalene or rewriting the history of Witchcraft in Scandinavia .
Now after so much of pondering about the personal histories and research for that –I must tell readers about my own contribution for that . Since I am the main character in my story and also my own favorite person for decades now, I did make some attempts to leave behind my memoirs. After years of regular diary writing, I had almost given up on the habit, but since yesterday the matter is under serious reconsideration. The habit started in age 12 when I read about Anne Frank’s Journal and decided that I should also keep one , for who know what comes next in my life . But after years of juvenile scribbling about a school friend or a favorite teacher, an account of fight with sisters or narration of disappointment with parents I found it is totally useless to fill the pages so dutifully. I mean what do I do with those volumes . Now when I read my adolescent diaries, I feel like putting a note that I revised my opinion later on this point or that wisdom prevailed on me after few days of writing this nonsense or may be that I never meant to sound so nasty about this person etc etc ….but I refrain from tampering with my own personal history . I must admit though, even if it is of no historical use later on- it does provide enough explosive material for some defamation suits from inside the family and friends. It is also hilarious at times to read how I used to think in those days. So even if no one bothers to reconstruct my personal life in future …I feel so blessed reading these recordings about my life that by God's grace things did not happen the way I wanted them to be at various points in my life.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Love, Lonliness and Lodhi Gardens

It was wonderfully cool after the nightlong showers in Delhi. For long, we couldn’t decide where we should go in such a pleasant weather during that rare idle afternoon. Finally we zeroed in at Lodhi gardens. We laughed out loud thinking how odd we would look there. The place after all is known for being the hideout for couples and not for same-sex duo. We even considered how the newspaper headline would read tomorrow if we are spotted by a reporter. –“Lesbians spotted at Lodhi garden” or may be ‘Love in the times of lesbianism’ . We cursed our lack of imagination and vocabulary for we could not fit the most preferred adjective of Delhi newspapers -“sexy’ in any of these headlines. But we forgot about these things once we crossed the stone bridge to enter the place which is a curious mix of history, landscaping and well, loneliness. From snobbish bureaucrats to fretting Colonels, from cozy lovebirds to casual on-lookers, everybody flock to this garden to spend quality time.
Once described by Time magazine as Asia's best urban oasis ,today it may have become the Mecca of all the lovers, without places to go and extra money to spend in Delhi but its original purpose was hardly that . It was designed over two dynasties – the Sayyids and Lodis (15-16 th century) – to be a sort of everyone-take-one graveyard for their families. The scenes and sounds of the place offered amazing variety.
And there we saw her. She must be around forty five - a smart Delhi lady , must be a resident of one of the affluent neighbourhoods nearby . Her purpose of being there in the garden was different from anyone of us-us, watchmen and the lovers included. She was also on a date and as we could guess from the reactions it was a regular one too. She was not there for meeting a boyfriend or a girlfriend, neither for a healthy and fashionable walk. She was there to feed some 10-12 stray dogs who stay in the garden. She was calling them by names and they were obediently following her. The two of us agreed that however, eccentric some may find her ways, it is anyday better than whiling away time with tear jerking soap operas which most other women would be doing in her colony .
It is difficult not to fall in love with the place at once. The neatly manicured lawns make it difficult to believe that once it was a congested bustee surrounding the Tombs. How did the British managed to clear the land in 1936? Our very own Archaeological Survey has been trying to vacate the Clive’s house in Kolkata for donkey’s years. How could then the foreigners convince the villagers to move for preserving a forsaken burial ground of bygone dynasties? May be there was no persuasion, just plain and simple coercion. They even changed the name of the place to Lady Willingdon Park . but the change was not long-lasting .After the Independence it was reverted back to being good old Lodi garden. In 1968, the gardens were spruced and re-landscaped by JA Stein and Garrett Eckbo.Good that at least in Lodhi garden , we managed to keep it beautiful….green and clean. As there is little architecture from these two periods remaining in India, Lodhi Gardens is an important place of preservation too. We walked till the Tomb of Muhammad Shah, where except for some pigeons and a watchman or two , no one accompanies the tomb of this third ruler of the Sayyid dynasty . It is a typical octagonal tomb with the central chamber surrounded by a verandah having three arched openings on each side. There were several graves inside the tomb but the brief stone board could not enlighten us about the identity of the persons buried with the king. As always a ugly looking blue board was declaring it as 'protected monument' ...the protection however was either absent or was done in the most careless way. Ugly cement patches on graves and brush strokes of pinkish paint can be hardly taken as 'preservation'. Another octagonal tomb located in this complex is Sikandar Lodi's Tomb . Then there was a Bara gumbad also but the entrance was locked for some strange reason and all we could glimpse form outside was the beautiful red-stone wall surrounding it. But history is just the background of the place not its reason anymore. People do not visit the place for its historical importance. In fact most visitors will be in total oblivion of the facts related to the place.

Public parks have always doubled up as private spaces for romantic couples who cannot seek the joys of physical intimacy in any other place.. We smiled at the desperation to be together .It was funny how couples were making most of the few minutes of togetherness. It was equally sad too. In a country where there are no secluded and safe places for couples to meet and in a society which disapproves of such meetings, where can they go? They came from all strata of society-students from hep DU colleges, voyeurs , sex workers, homeless and middle class . We could see that at least some of them were married too. Probably small family homes crowded by family elders do not give them space to be cosy. Not that this haven was without the fear of Delhi police or the self appointed moral police. Rani exclaimed , how weird it is that people are penalised for being in love. There was a headline in the morning newspaper about another honour killing in Gurgaon. A father killed his daughter and her husband for marrying without his consent. The mother of the victim supported her husband’s doing. How strange that these social taboos can overcome the much glorified parental love too! We discussed about that but soon changed the topic to naming the majestic tall trees around us. There were ashokas, poplar, jamun, Chinar, Neem and Eucalyptus too. From bamboo to bonsai and from rose to water lilies the place has all the charms of flora of the region. But the medal goes to bright and sunny amaltas-which is at full bloom these days. It is after all, a portent of the season. Summer seems incomplete without the alternate colours of red-gulmohar and yellow-amaltas. We spotted beehives on some of the tallest trees, found a family of squirrels , green parakeets, black n’brown mynahs and finally a swimming training school of mama duck followed by her obedient daughters . The background music was provided by Cuckoo (koyel) ….as usual.
It was after good two hours of walk and discussions on world around us that we came back to the urban jungle usually recognized as New Delhi and were lost immediately as anonymous figures in the crowd of people and vehicles.