Sunday, December 26, 2010

Season’s Eatings!

 The work was never ending and the stress level was high. It had been like that for more than a month. But this particular day was exceptionaly bad.  It was one of those workdays when everybody form your boss to colleagues and from subordinates to family members is after your happiness. I looked out of the window. The December is almost through. Fading afternoon sun hardly had any warmth but still it was a very tempting time to resist going out. In the moment of anxiety, fear or even desperation- my thoughts often go back to my good food memories. The Good Food memories of Winters necessarily includes cakes and bakes. Recently a school friend very aptly described December and January as very “Cakey times”. So I left the file I was pretending to look at and walked out of the building. I hardly had any idea of the place I wanted to explore. I had searched out an address in Paharganj but knew nothing what I can expect there. German Bakery! The very name brings to my mind delicious cakes,breads and doughnuts. I have no idea why they are called German Bakery, I don’t even know why they are scattered all over Himalayas and some other selected towns of India. Yes there was one at Kaza as well. One in Manali I remember and also a small one at Tabo . And why German -Are Germans supposed to be great bakers anyways? Or it has got something to do with German Hippies of 70s, who could not stay away from their cakes and bakes even as they continued their search for Nirvana.

But I couldn’t care less. I needed a distraction from work and what could be better than a bustling market with narrow lanes, traffic snarls, colourful display of things and all familiar sights of an old city. My driver and peon were certain that I am off for some shady place when I told them where I am going. I have been to Paharganj many times before- but this part of Paharganj was new to me. The firang part- I mean. This part caters only to foreign tourists. Mostly backpackers. All eateries claim to be “the original German Bakery” and there were at least half a dozen World Peace Cafes. They all offer a menu difficult to find in other city bakeries. No cream filled black forest and pineapple cake (with red cherry on top). Here the offerings were more to suit the taste of our foreign guests - less of cream and more of cake. The cinnamon rolls and croissants, the pies and the doughnuts looked tempting. Of course these were not for me- there were no eggless varieties available…but they looked very different and very yummy. When I finally reached the German Bakery I was looking for it was disappointing. The ambience was just ordinary - hardly what I would imagine at a place so famous. I mean it was not even a bakery – it was just a small time tea shop with some baked stuff inside the glass case. Some shops selling knickknacks for tourists were also part of the same room. But then I looked closely – the stuff was different . There were exotic cakes- Walnut, Apple-honey, Cinnamon, and of course chocolate . All without the usual generous scoops of cream. I bought several types for my friends and my husband and walked out . While coming back from this odd bakery – I thought of other bakeries I have loved .

For me Birthday cake was always very special and with three birthdays in the family in January – our supply of cakes was continuous for that month. I could never hide my excitement when my birthday was round the corner. My dad- pampering his youngest , always brought multiple cakes for the day . Being the glutton I always was, I never said no.   It was so funny that the owner of Lucknow’s Burma Bakery which supplied my birthday cakes from my 9th birthday onwards also remembered my and my sister’s birthday .

Bakeries are very happy smelling places. I read somewhere that smell of baking soothes nerves and makes one feel relaxed. I totally believe in that as I recall my baking memories. My trials with baking have been mildly successful. I tried all kinds- scones, cakes, pies, breads and even cookies. It was great fun to learn new baking tricks with friends . But my success in baking are almost equal to my failures. The good part is –I never left trying . As my sister- my captive taster once commented jestfully - “ You keep on trying …we will get either cookies or paperweights . Both are useful. ”

It is unfortunate that now bakeries have lost their individuality. In Calcutta the three bakery chains have identical stuff in all outlets. Very uninspiring if you ask me. Even the middle range bakeries in Delhi have similar stuff. They are not even open to try new items. Some do customize of course, but most have limited items to offer- they do not even change the icing for your choice. I remember in my growing up days I used to specify the icing on my birthday cakes. One year I wanted a wafer house and on another multiple coloured jam layers. It was always made with perfection.
Some old colonial towns ahve great traditions of bakeries. I have seen lovely small bakeries in Shimla, Mussoorie and Pune. Mumbai also have some very special ones . Another place which comes to my mind is Kochi- the place where Jewish bakeries are still thriving with pride . Calcutta too had Nahoums' . The famous new market bakery - which hardly had anything for a no- egg cake lover like me. Even though I never tasted their famous rich plum cake on Christmas - I can see that even a mention of it  brings  a delightful shine in my hubby's eyes .

With the January approaching us in another four days, and with it both my birthday and the New year  – I think of my yummy memories and smell the familiar “cakey” smell in the air. Happy days are here again!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I just wanna play my music…

Jonas brothers were speaking for my entire generation and the generation before us when they sang-

“Turn on that radio
As loud as it can
Wanna dance until my feet can't feel the ground (feel the ground)
Music's in my soul
I can hear it everyday, everynight
It's the one thing on my mind
Music's got control
And I'm never letting go, no no
I just want to play my music”
                                 (From Disney’s Camp Rock)

Oh yes, we just want to play our music, our way. Every morning while coming to office, I and my chauffeur go through a silent tussle. The point of difference is in the choice of music to be played in the car. I prefer old songs and using my remote from the backseat change the channel to AIR-FM Gold playing songs of 1960s. The moment car stops for a red signal, Ashish comes back to Radio Mirchi or some such noisy FM channel playing current numbers. After almost a month of this war – we declared truce. So on Monday-Wednesday and Friday we play my choice and on others, I let Ashish have his way. Interestingly on one of ‘my days’ I found him immediately taking out his mobile and put ear plugs to listen his channels privately. It was a revolt. But I have to admit - a smart one. Next day I followed suit with my Mp3 player and listened to my ragas while he enjoyed his Punjabi pop. So now, travelling in the same car, every morning we listen to two different types of music. After all, music is very personal in our times. We like to carry it with us in gadgets of various shapes and capacities. But look around, how easy it has become to carry your music. It is not unusual to find parents entertaining their babies in trains or public places by playing portable DVD players. Or joggers running with iPod or office workers playing mp3 in the desktops or fliers tuning to favorite music in-flight. Times have changed indeed.
Most people have their specific likes and dislikes when it comes to genres of music, musicians and way they like to listen. But till very recently, music was not portable. After our wedding, when my hubby called on my grand uncle, he was told that the eldest member of my family had visited Kolkata sometime back( actually in late 1930s) .My hubby politely asked if he visited the Howrah bridge and the Victoria Memorial ? With a mischievous grin my grand uncle replied that he was more interested in visiting Kananbala’s house in those days. Well, the love and craze for musicians is nothing new. We all have music icons of our generation. In my grandparents generation the only way to listen to music was live performance. People used to travel for days to listen to their favorite artists. Then came gramophone and brought the music close to its fans. It took some time to get popular and it was not so easy to find records. I remember we had a gramophone in my childhood. It was used to play records on birthdays and special occasions.I still remember how we used to dance on those old tunes. It was fun when long playing records came to the scene. We had such craze of listening to film music on them. Of course radio was our staple. Tuning different radio stations for different types of music was like following a class schedule. In school days transistor was my all day companion. Discovering a new radio station was like a favorite game. I will not repeat much about my craze for radio listening as I have already written on that here.
But in our teenage, the way people listened to music changed dramatically with the coming of tape recorders. Two in ones- as they were called popularly. A must have in a hostel room. An inevitable companion in a showroom. The tape recorder made it very easy to record and play voices from our dear and near ones. It might sound retard to today’s generation but it was thrilling to hear your own voice coming from the tape. Earlier one has to go to a recording studio to get a record made. I believe this was the time when music turned personal. We were no longer waiting in front of radio for the program to play our favorite song. We could play and replay it any number of times. Still tape recorders were bulky and not very easy to carry and cassettes were neither cheap nor durable. First factor was changed forever in India by the advent of Gulshan Kumar’s T Series – suddenly all cassettes were 29 rupees (as against Rs 120 or more of HMV), some were priced even lower at 17 rupees – it was almost liberation for young music aficionados. Then came walkman- how dramatic it sounded that you can walk and work while listening to music. An entire generation was plugged to it immediately. This was the much coveted gift which my elder cousins aspired for . It was very cool to have one. Parents, of course, thought it is incarnation of devil to ruin their children’s ears and mind. But to be fair, their parents had similar views about gramophone.

In front of my eyes the audio tapes turned into all powerful CDs- sleek and compact with immense storage capacity . First time I saw them at AIR Lucknow- I thought what can be better and sleeker than this. I found the answer soon enough. In a matter of years DVDs revolutionized the quality of music. Then technology took another step forward and came digital music. First time I heard music on computer (on winamp) I thought- this is it. In a matter of days- most of my CD collection was copied on the computer and I learnt a new lingo of music listening. Winamp, Real player, .wav format and of course .mp3 . It was a matter of minutes to find your favorite song, copy it online and play it on computer. Napster made us realize the power on Internet in very tangible, very musical way. Till the famous lawsuit made it illegal, it opened the floodgate of music for everybody across the globe. But by then, there were thousands of sites providing access to music online. It was around 2000 that I learnt all this and in just 10 years – this music is everywhere. Now, you don’t even need a computer to play it on. A small mp3 player would do for many thousand songs. Now every day I share music, download it, edit it and record it. Play it at my own convenience, at my own choice.
Of course, there is a school of thought that says that the magic is lost in this control freak environment of music listening. You no longer wait for your favorite number, no longer send request to play it- its so much in your hands that the craving for those sounds has gone forever. If you ask my mother, the sense of listening it together is also lost in this personalized way of listening to music. May be there is some truth in that. A CD of shehnai playing at a wedding can hardly replace the charm of live performance. Similarly the sound and energy one feels in a classical performance on stage can never be felt through a mp3 player. But then, convenience has a cost attached with it.

As I said earlier, music is very personal. I have people around me who listen to almost anything from Bollywood numbers to Buddhist chants on iPod, on mp3 players and many such gadgets. This morning I found that even my chauffeur has his playlists made. Come to talk of it, last year when I bought my first car, I made it clear that in my car my music playsI see people engrossed in their music while travelling by crowded buses, metro or even walking on the streets, almost every day. If you ask me, though live music will remain charming in its own way, it’s great fun and great convenience to have your music your way at your command .ok you can’t have the charm of live classical performance in other formats but come to think of it - how many more can today listen to a great musician - who 200 years back would have remained limited to only a single raj darbar. How much more music is available to the yearning ears crossing boundaries of money, geography and politics. Really, as the taglines goes, there is actually so much to hear .

So here I end this post and go back to my music :

“Don't you feel it growin', day by day
People gettin' ready for the news
Some are happy, some are sad
Oh, we got to let the music
What the people need is a way to make 'em smile
It ain't so hard to do if you know how
Gotta get a message-
Oh, oh, listen to the music
Oh, oh, listen to the
Oh, oh, listen to the music baby
All the time .”

(from Listen to the music by-Doobie Brothers)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Languages-lost and found

I have always been surrounded by storytellers. My parents were excellent storytellers, so were my two sisters and even my husband.  No wonder on most important issues of life, I cannot think without thinking of a parable. Today when I plan to write about the languages, their purity, their extinction and use…some of the most memorable tales of my childhood come to my mind.

I will narrate the one I love most . Gunadhyay was a minister to satvahana king Gautamiputra Sātakarni (also known as Shalivahan) in first century AD. One day young king was playing in water with his wives. The queen pleaded with him not to throw any more water on her (modaikah), which the king in his ignorance of laws of verbal conjugation in Sanskrit took for request for sweetmeats (modaka). The queen laughed at his ignorance . King’s ego was badly hurt and he decided to master Sanskrit at the earliest. Gunadhyay promised him desired proficiency in 6 years but Gunadhyay's rival Katantra came with a proposal for 6 months to master the language. Overconfident Gunadhyay vows not to use Sanskrit, Prakrit or any vernacular ever again if the deed is done.  But the King masters Sanskrit language under Katantra's tutelagee and Gunadhyay leaves the city of Pratishthan (present Paithan) and wanders disconsolate in Vindhyays. Later he meets Kanabhuti and learns a lesser known Paishachi language to write his stories. He sends a collection of his stories to his king. The king , now a master in Sanskrit, insults the language in which it is written and sends it back without reading . Heartbroken and insulted , Gunadhay started reading his stories to the animals and then burning them . The legend goes that the animals listened to those stories and were mesmerized, they stopped eating and moving . The news reached the King who rushed to save the stories. By the time he found Gunadhyay, 6 lakh stories were lost in fire . The remaining today forms Vrahat katha- a compilation which inspired katha sarit sagar and many such compilations. As a child I wondered how powerful this Paishachi language would have been. Today Paishachi - a form of prakrit , is an extinct language. It is mentioned as a medium of debate and literary expression in various Theravada Buddhist sources, and in Prakrit and Sanskrit grammars of antiquity. But still, we lost it , perhaps forever .

I resist from telling other equally fascinating stories about birth of a new Sanskrit grammer or about lust for learning a puritan language – stories of Panini and of Kalidasa. The point I am driving at is about our languages- old and new, changing with the times, losing their original character- developing in few cases, losing identity in most others . How our tradition tells us about people who loved them, preserved them, revered them and passed them on to next generations. Then somewhere we lost this penchant . Our languages world over are losing their strength. Some are lost others are in a process of being extinct.

Languages are much more than just a medium of expression. They tell you so much about the people who spoke them. They are a mirror of people’s perception. In my class of Philology in the University , we learnt about the relations of different languages , their history and development. It was extremely enlightening .

Now that I try to recall , it must have been in middle school that I first  thought about the delicate matter of languages- the impact of not getting them right  . It was when I came to know about Harappan Script and how it is yet to be deciphered . I looked at those pictorial alphabets and wondered what people who wrote them were trying to convey. In all probability, they narrate daily transactions and instructions. This is unlikely that the authors had any intention of spreading their word for  times to come .But then, what is so tough in those signs, those symbols of daily life that we are unable to find meaning behind them . Why we could not try all permutations and combinations to break the code behind these symbols.  It’s not that no one ever fell in love with these undeciphered languages and their mystery. I can think of Iravadan Mahadevan , a former IAS officer of 1954 batch who dedicated his life for study of Indus script and Brahmi. I can also think of one of world's greatest experts on the Indus script, Asko Parpola, who has been studying this undeciphered writing for over 30 years at the University of Helsinki in Finland. But despite some such people , despite our advancement in technology and our power of computing , we are unable to get back the tougues of the past. We are unable to do so, because the link of passing them on was broken. May be no one was interested in knowing them anymore. May be they were tougues of people who lost the war. Of people who do not mattter anymore. Of people whose thoughts and expressions were not considerred important to be understood . And it happened everywhere on the earth .
    Sometimes I feel that my generation is ungrateful. We do not respect what we inherited- be in monuments, skills, traditions or anything else. But then, perhaps each generation was like that ….and who knows how complete our inheritance was in case of languages. Till James Princep conclusively deciphered Kharoshthi in the middle of 19th Century, we knew little about 600 odd years of our history. Many pre-biblical scrolls are yet to be read . Very few are interested in them. Leave aside them, very few care to learn languages just for the love of it.
Once I heard a story of Pt. Sakal Narayan Shastri, an upcountry Brahmin who came to Kolkata looking for employament. Someone suggested him to meet the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University – legendary lawyer Ashutosh Mukherjee . The VC asked him what all he has read. The answer was simple- “Published-I have read all, unpublished- whatever I could lay my lands on.” It took the university administration sometime to decide in which department such a person can be placed. He knew many languages, arts, philosophies and more. One hears about many others of that generation, who painstakingly learnt and mastered the languages .
Then we also know how like everything else the love for languages is also politicised in today's world.Langauges are looked upon as a political tool. They are imposed on people in tthe packaged deal for education, employment etc. While I appreciate the sentiment that people consider language as such an important ingredient of their identity, I can never appreciate why they need to compete .e.g. the biggest disservice to hindi was done when it was made rajbhasha and was imposed on people. IT harmed the language , made more people resist it, made more people against it. It nearly killed the literature of the language. Knowing Hindi become a profession after all. At the end of it - we have hundreds of Hindi Officers, Hindi academies, Hindi Directorates, Hindi Pakhwaras  but very few Hindi lovers. Even those who speak it as their first langauge - do not feel proud of it. Do not know it too well. I wonder how many of us would be able to recall the old devnagari script in which hindi was written just about a hundred years back. And yet, no one learns by this experience. Each regional language and its speakers only think of making institutions to spread their tougues- no one really cares to spread the love for the languages- all of them. Going this way , we might just  turn more people away from the languages - fom the joy of it, the thrill of understanding the symbols and scripts and the history they carry with them.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My gardening genes

Entrance of my house (Jan2009)- nasturtiums,calendulas and Sweetpeas

My favorite memory of my father- the way I often see him in my dreams , is he looking after his favorite flower beds on a summer evening. It was a daily ritual as long as I remember that my father will step out of his car- tired from a usual day in a office and would head straight to check out on his plants, roses, shrubs and creepers. His weekend activities necesarily included pruning and cutting, planting and maintaining his garden. Even with two or three full time gardeners - he believed in Kipling's saying that Gardens are not made by singing “Oh how beautiful” and sitting in the shade. So he would get down to work himself. 
Visits to nurseries and to flower shows  are very important childhood memories to me. Papa devoted himself almost full time after his retirement , in looking after his garden. In my family, I inherited the gardening-genes from both sides. The love for gardening is so much ingrained that even now my mom would remember a particular house they lived in , by remembering the trees, the hedges ,size of the lawns , the flowers and the fruits. She can go on for hours telling you about the guawas we had in our Allahabad house and the Litchis trees at Pantnagar. Despite shifting homes every 3-4 years , my parents never lost their love for ‘ farming’ . Both of them , by the way , had no farming genes, as they came from urban backgrounds and  yet loved gardening so much. In fact a lot of my gardening trivia came from my father’s extensive reading e.g. he taught me names of different variety of roses and dahlias , the stories of famous gardens and gardeners and the tips on growing best plants.I use to take pride in knowing names of plants in three or four languages but like most others in north India, we  normally used urdu/hindustani names of plants . I have already mentioned in this blog how my parents used to shift on transfers with their favorite plants in tow .
Within days of landing up in a new place , my father would start planting banana and papaya trees. Within a year or so the fruits were ready for the family and neighbours. His another favorite activity was growing vegetables like bottle gourd (lauki), bitter gourd and ridge gourd(taroi). If the space was available, he will experiment with other fancy vegetables like beans, carrots and cauliflowers too , but these three were staple. God…how much we kids hated eating these on a regular basis . But the pride with which these were presented was unparalleled . Even comparing notes with neighbours on size of rose or vegetables was part of the gardening tradition of the family- sometimes to the embarrassment of us kids.This vegetable growing was improved further when Papa  went for deputation to Pantanagar Agriculture University ( a very appropriate choice for him!!) Mom was no less. She would find a particular flowering shurb in somebody's house and would immediately ask for a branch and next day mali would be ordered to find it out in nurseries . Once she developed a fad for all colours of Canna and hibiscus(gulhad) and within days our backside garden was full of these two in most unusal colours. Even in my mom’s parental house at Agra, gardening is a passion, a topic of discussion on dining table and a skill much valued . My uncle is a proud gardener with a ‘ vision’. He will design his garden in one way and would get bored with it after a while and believe it or not , overnight the garden would be ‘shifted’ to another design ….with hedges and shrubs and all -intact ! How he ensured that none of the plants die in this shifting is a mystery to me but he did it with such skill that it looked like magic .

Many of these plants travelled with us from one house to another and some others , we left flowering for the new occupants . No wonder,when my parents built their own house one of the pre-condition was existence of a lawn and place to grow vegetables. They did not mind settling down slightly far away from the city,as this requirement was non negotiable. It was difficult not to learn something about gardens and plants in a family like mine. Though the most talented of us sisters is my elder sis, I too realized off late that I cannot live without some plants and flowers to look after . It was however  difficult for me to find a niche area to specialize in the family. Father was all for flowers and specially roses , mom experimented with what she called useful plants – tulsi, chillies, mint leaves, coriander, tomatoes and the like . My sis loved the decorative greens - crotons and ferns, African grass and money plants .Now thanks to her efforts, our Lucknow house looks like all green - with creepers and climbers covering the front .

For some reason I was always partial for the scents . With the help of our gardeners,I carefully planted scents like harsingar(shefali), ratrani, kamini, malti, juhi, chameli and my most favorite - bela . Those who are familiar with these can imagine how fragrant the house would be when all of these are on bloom(usually around rainy season). In the early winters and again in summers , collecting the delicate and fragrant flowers below the tree was my favorite morning activity
Anyways , I was struggling with my gardening genes for past few weeks. I shifted to a new house last January and left my ground floor house with garden full of winter blooms for the next occupant. Now this new house on the first floor , has limitations for gardening . Still, I managed to gather about 40 potted plants .

Pride of my last year's winter bloom. My biggest Dahlia in a pot
Now with the winter approaching, I almost ache for the familiar sights of pansies, dahlias, cinerarias, sweet peas and marigolds. I told myself to resist this urge this year . I mean I hardly get time these days to pick up my gardening trowel and Pruning shears to look after my plants. But the funny part about genes is- you can’t resist them for long. So here I was this afternoon , standing in a nursery missing my lunch , picking up plants and fertilizers for the winter flowers . Now that I am again ready with my gardening tools ,let’s see how my winter 2011 collection goes. After all, the best thing about gardening is the anticipation and hope it provides to a person.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Msafiri at Masaai Mara

Can emptiness be pretty? Can lack of anything interesting be interesting ? I asked this question first time when I visited spiti valley in Himanchal. After reaching that height – in that unusually empty cold desert it’s the lack of everything-vegetation, birds, sounds, smells and even humans that results in beauty. A place where even a sigh is heard so clearly…where the blue-ness of sky is overwhelming and where eyes search for an object to rest on for a while . Such austere , stark and yet stunning beauty. So incomparable in its components. I got a similar feeling while travelling towards masaai mara. I am not so much of a wildlife enthusiastic but Masaai Mara has a snob value. It is one of those places where I would have liked to go before I die …A kind of place one reads about in Travel magazines and sees in adventure movies ….so I agreed to Fred’s proposal of visiting it in Kenya . Me and Fred were much relieved as this trip started after completion of our rather hectic official work at Uganda . We were in vacation mood. Even the terribly inefficient Nairobi airport could not dampen our spirits .
The moment we were out of Nairobi , it was a different world …..the great rift valley was open in front of us . It is vast in its expanse and suddenly reminds you about a chapter in your geography text book on fossils and the east African rift . If one word defines our journey from here it is –Bare . After a while even the road was over. It was just a pair of tyre marks in dusty way what we were following . But we were not alone .There were many cars like ours. For miles, there was nothing more than an occasional bush or tree here and there. O yes, before I forget there was a cathedral – built by prisoners of war from Italy in 1944. A small yet beautiful slice of Italy in Kenya . Later on I found that even America has many such cathedrals and chapels built by POW. I was so tired that even the heat or the bumps from the road could keep me awake. Next time I open my eyes , we were already passing through masaai villages. Masaai- is perhaps world’s most famous tribe , may be because of their distinct dress, height or may be location of their residence near the safari parks .While it was heartening to find some children in school dresses- it was very apparent that poverty and age old customs mark everyday life in this part of the world. They love their colourful dresses and have continued to wear their dresses but it would to assume that the influence of outer world has not reached them. Try clicking one picture and they shout “ dollar ! dollar!” with a strange smile . They too understand the cost of their exotic looks .

Its difficult not to get moved by Masaai mara. You see so many animals and birds that it thrills you . They are totally at home in this place. It is very visibly their home and you remain a visitor. They continue with their business uncaring of human eyes and camera shutters. Sometimes I got a feeling that some of them specially the lions even enjoy their celebrity status- they pose sometimes and sometimes they stubbornly hide while the cars full of eager tourist wait for their glimpse. I somehow did not like the way we humans track them . To my eyes it was almost breach of privacy ….but still we followed the drill . The great fun started next morning . We had debated about it for many days and finally decided to go for it. The expensive but very alluring hot air balloon safari – was something we were really looking forward. The day started early for this. By 5 we were already at our ‘launchpad” the balloon was getting inflated. We were accompanied by an elderly Japanese gentleman and a Kenyan family . The pilot and his girlfriend – a wildlife photographer completed the crew. In minutes our beautiful balloon was ready to fly. What an experience it was !!! Watching animals from up there. We saw so many of them. The reverse migration of wildebeests was still on….and we saw hundreds of them. The migrations of animals and birds are fascinating stuff. It makes you believe in the intricacies of plot written by the Great Scriptwriter for this world. They travel all over the globe- every year …and they rarely lose track. These wildebeests were of course going back to Serengeti , following the rain . It was an amazing sight , the way they follow in long lines of ‘immigration ‘ to Tanzania . The view from the balloon was superb. It was a majestic view of the animal kingdom and we saw zebras, cheetahs , elephants and giraffes. Then followed the wonderful breakfast right there in the middle of the forest. It was unbelievable and very exciting . The river mara was flowing behind us quietly .
Back home yesterday I happened to meet a senior in my office who is an Africa veteran and is working with UN for past many years .When I told him about my journey through Uganda and Kenya he gave a very knowing smile and said: “Wealth is not always in money – this is what you learn in that continent .Isn’t it ?” Well, I couldn’t agree more.
(find my other photos from Kenya here )

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Uganda: First impressions

Its difficult to miss India in Uganda. Rows of familiar tress – mango, jackfruit, banana and a very similar climate ensures that you feel at home. I realized this after almost a week in Kampala . There are infact many things about Kampala which one realizes only after some days. The simmering tensions beneath the peaceful city – the complex equations between people and the politics to list a few . But I was lucky that I could afford to remain unaware with these difficult truths of east Africa. Being a foreigner has its own advantages. You can appear ignorant on many things – but then, Indians are not considered foreigners in Uganda. Even common people know them. The Indian Community has a presence in the city . Indians and Chinese are vying for the market of this distant nation for past many decades. In a reception at India House( Indian High Commissioner’s beautifully located house) I got to meet many such rich and elite Ugandan-Indians – people who have made fortune over here. People who own tea estates here or those who are personal physicians to the presidents. Bankers and businessmen , social workers and socialites ….Indians do have a presence here and thankfully after Idi Amin , they too have changed. If you believe the tales, it appears that my countrymen tried to rule over here in the same inhuman way the British ruled over us. No wonder that the local people do not like most of them. They feel uncomfortable with the shrewdness and cunningness of Indians who came here for business….but still they associate India with Mahatma Gandhi. Its surprising , how even the younger generation knows about him and his life . Somewhere it humbles you- tells you that in the end only pure things survive and are appreciated .
Every day while going for work , I list things typical of Uganda. I found you can’t miss three features of Kampala- Bikers- ready to sail you through the terrible traffic jams, the mobile company ads- which are literally painting the town pink, yellow, blue and orange and of course, the bananas. Then you can't miss the huge marabou storks. Now, anyone who has travelled in Uganda, particularly in Kampala, knows about the marabous. They are simply EVERYWHERE. They are scavengers of note. They are huge. They are semi-ugly, semi-pathetic- looking in the same way as very old men do - virutally bald reddish heads. In Kampala they sit on virtually all the trees; on the corners of buildings, on lampposts, in empty lots. They have a menacing feel about them, with their necks hunched into their wings like the boney shoulders of a creepy old man , almost ready to pounce. Other than these , whatever the Lonely planet guide tells you about the country and the city is right . Yes, people are extremely polite and friendly and the city is largely clean and welcoming . But you cannot miss acute poverty while you are here- as much as you can’t help noticing the simplicity of the people . It touches you very deep somewhere. The country runs on the funds of “development Partners” – Its their money that shows even in the remote parts . A young Japanese girl- here to manage one such fund , accompanied me to Queen Elizabeth National Park. We wondered her courage to come and work here – living alone, far off from home and in such different environment. But there are many like her- everybody here knows the Donors. They call shots and dictate terms . It’s ironic that same people who once tortured them as colonizers and rulers, today come back to them as consultants and businessmen – the equations of exploitation remain unchanged despite modern nomenclature.
As for local people they have a sad acceptance of fate- of bad systems – of unequal fight with disease and poverty. It almost breaks my heart when a well travelled , well off young man at AG office here informs me about the death of his 32 year old sister. It’s almost without emotion. She died after an unsuccessful cesarean- he tells me flatly. It was suppose to be her third child . People die of malaria, of AIDS and of childbirth all the time. Death and disease have been associated for so long that they have become part of life . And yet these people found things to celebrate, to dance and sing about. In the historical Makerere University Campus , where I am staying, it is difficult not to find groups of young collegegoers singing, dancing playing football and tennis. A gold medal at Commonwealth games is as much a cause of celebration as is winning a inter university match . Students in this campus look very simple, keen and pure .I know there are difficulties in their young lives- of drugs, of sexual abuse or HIV but it does not become apparent in the first meeting. Most of them come across as just shy youngsters happy and happening – curious about world and things around them .

Monday, September 27, 2010

Life’s little eccentricities

A civilized society is one which tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity.”

Going by the above definition, ours is an extremely civil society. We do not mind eccentricities – we discuss them, pamper them and at times joke about them…but we do not discard them at all.
While reading a PG Wodehouse book one evening, this thought came to my mind about eccentricities- the so called sprinklings of madness each one of us has. Have you noticed how almost all Wodehouse characters have these peculiar traits. There are some who steal pigs, others who impersonate a psychiatric and my favorite , who paint moustache on the statues (for they like them better that way) . DO they appear unreal to you in anyways? Not to me, for sure. Those of you who have seen Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie) would remember how most people around this girl have little eccentricities of their own. There are those who collected torn pictures from the bins, accountants who think they are perpetually ill and hate the words” fruits of thy womb” , some others who sneak at neighbours with a video camera , failed writers who like watching bullfights on TV , rejected lovers who spy while cracking bubble wraps, a waitress who likes to crack bones and even a cat who likes to overhear children’s stories. If you look carefully you’d find that eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride or may be just an habit. Genius and aristocrats are frequently regarded as eccentrics because they are entirely unafraid of and totally unaffected by opinions and vagaries of the crowd. But well, eccentricities are equally divided among all age groups, income groups and gender .
I too am particularly blessed with such people around me. So much so that at times I wonder whether it’s me who is responsible for attracting such characters around me . Oh but god bless them for being how they are…. Life would have been so dull if we had no such characters around. I keep telling them that one is only given a little spark of madness and one must not lose it. Generally I find that people have these happy obsessive preoccupations, and this gives them a significant meaning in life. And they are far healthier than most people because of these traits. It somehow makes them more human, more lovable and more acceptable in my eyes. I had a colleague who had only two interests- Dogs and Indian classical music. That his two interests have no common point never occurred to him. He sings either patriotic or sad songs in parties and loves to cook desserts. Another friend was a compulsive shopper for books- which he hardly ever read. My mom re-arranges fridge racks at least thrice a day and my secretary always smiles his sweetest when one is scolding him. Another colleague cannot help starting every sentence with “ No no- yes yes…ok ok “ and yet another ( a lady), regularly forgets her bag, notebook, even cosmetics in my room and then searches for it everywhere . My hubby knew someone in college who could not reply to a question without repeating the question first . Then there is favorite category of eccentrics - the professors and teachers. Aha...what a collection we had in them. Hubby had one who would bargain as a matter of principle on every small or big item - from rickshaw fare to vegetables and usually ended up paying more than the originally asked price . He bargains , next time again - as a matter of principle .
It’s interesting to watch people closely . A very senior officer of my service once told us how most people in bureaucracy are ophthalmologist- that is “I”- specialists and who love to talk about themselves to no end. It was a wonderful joke and all of us laughed - but then he continued for next 45 minutes explaining “ But then I am not like that. I like to….I do not like to…. And many more ‘I’s ” It was difficult not to find one of other such specimen while I was in Kolkata – the city which takes pride in its eccentricities . I had an accountant who was a practicing tantric, another who did PhD in Latin to read Paradise Lost in original. A boss who used to roll his own cigarettes to save money and another one who thought he was a reborn German soldier of WW-II . Best so far however , was my ex-boss , who loved to edit my drafts by replacing some words with their synonyms. When the fair copy will go to him...he will find yet another synonym. After about 6-7 such "corrections" in 90% cases my original word was back to its place and the boss had a smile of satisfaction pasted on his face which is usually found on gentlemen after a difficult task is achieved with perfection. In the Mussoorie academy we had an economics professor who always started his lecture with “ Suppose this gaaay ( guy) has 100 pepsi bottles…..” and one whose favorite adjective was "atrocious ". Then there is one interesting superior in hubby's office whose favorite phrases are " I do not like to beat my own trumpet" and " I am an artist by nature " . That these are sometimes followed by totally unflattering stories of his career never makes him see the contrast.

I am sure I too have some favorite words something which can be called eccentric . But then I have to rely on others’ for knowledge about that . Once a cousin told me that I am a bathing freak – as I used to take bath 4-5 times a day in summer months . Hubby adds that I am a control freak and mom says I freak out if I see too much stuff in the house and start throwing things in the wastebins. So the common adjective is ‘freak’ and if despite being a freak in one way or the other , if I am being accepted – I am sure ours is a civilized society .
Coming to the genetic aspect of eccentricities , I too with confidence can say like queen Elizabeth , about my family that like all the best families, we have our fair share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters , senile elders and of family disagreements. To begin with the eldest member of the family , my grand uncle , at the age of ninety two gives every one appointment to meet, including his maid and the postman. He even has fixed daily phone appointments with my aunts and uncles With me he holds a weekly appointment over phone …where conversation must end with a santa banta joke. Then I have aunts who watch teary soup operas, discuss them incessantly and then trash them as foolishness. It’s heartening to note that youngsters are also keeping the family flag high. My elder sis loves to visit markets and malls – where her favorite activity is to reject the stuff available on racks . Mind you, the lady is pretty fair in her dealings…she gives chance to all markets and all shops to reject their stuff regularly. Then I have a dear brother in law who hates curds but relishes Dahi bada made up of it . He cannot tolerate smell of mango and loves to drink mango drinks and then his elder brother - my better half, who insists that potatoes cut in round shape taste differently than those cut in finger chips . Sometimes I feel irritated by these habits of my family members but then honestly, life would be pretty dull if all of us have similar habits .
After all, if you spend too much time being like everybody else, you decrease your chances of coming up with something different.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bursting in a song

My husband says I am a film addict. More than that he concludes that I can and love to watch same movies again and again and well, almost always on TV . I have to admit that he is right ...almost. I love 'my kind of cinema' and I do not enjoy watching movies in cinema hall generally. Somehow, the comfort of my home is important for me to watch a movie . It always seems to amaze me how films(and sometimes television ) are my answer no matter what life might throw my way. There is always a movie to fit my mood and console my feelings. Its difficult to worry about problems and mess in the office when a TCM musical is going on. Similarly, I am unable to feel angry or frustrated for long from my real life if a funny / romantic movie is going on. So its typical for me to come home and collapse wondering what a busy day was all about and then almost like a magic the Tv screen starts telling me tales - some known (but I do not mind hearing them again like a greedy child) and some unknown, which make me dream endlessly about places and people I know not. But my favorites are musicals . They never fail to pep up my spirits .
Do you ever get the urge of bursting in a song while you are in middle of a conversation- a serious one ? Well, I do. When I was a schoolgirl, a favorite cousin very wisely told me that we like the bollywood songs so much because somewhere in our mind we picturise them with us in it . I thought it was a joke at that time. Now I believe in it . No wonder I think musicals are very real cinema. I feel disappointed that we , in India experimented with musicals (the Broadway kind) in very few projects . I can recall Amol Palekar’s Thoda sa Roomani Ho Jaye and some of Sai paranjape’s movies say Katha . But other than that though songs were part of most movies, they were not musicals in the Broadway style. I mean in Indian movies, characters do not burst in the songs while doing normal chores. Songs do not replace dialogues mostly ….they are carefully woven in the storyline. Occasions are created for them .The main function of musical numbers in Bollywood films remains to express emotion. Broadway musical numbers, on the other hand, primarily drive the plot. While Broadway musical numbers are integrated into the narrative, Bollywood musical numbers usually are not. Rather, they’re metaphors, removed from the plot, that show how a character feels, not what the character is actually doing.
But what I miss is movies like My fair Lady , Singing in the Rain ,more recent ones like Mamma Mia, Chicago, Moulin rouge, and Enchanted ………..and many many more . The 1950s and 1960s Hollywood musicals are my all time favorite. However it is heartening to find that the trend of making musicals has not stopped since then. Most of Disney's movies including animations are musicals. The recent High school Musical series was fabulous and I adore Glee on Star world .
India we did not experiment with this genre much.Some Devanand and Gurudutt movies came pretty close to be categorized with these but mostly mainstream cinema in India remained non Broadway musical that is with music- dance sequences only. Such a shame , if you ask me.
It seems perfectly normal to me that people at times may like to sing and dance while going through their normal daily life. I also feel at times the words of a song describe our feelings much more aptly than any length of prose. No wonder at times I find people humming a particular song in a particular mood. There are songs which remind us of some event or someone and there are songs which remind us of ourselves in a particular mood. We all have songs associated with college days , school days, birthdays , our friend circle and many other such milestones of life. But still most of us , even those who love songs and movies, would be shocked to find someone singing publicly . Almost how the guy in Enchanted was embarrassed when Princess Giselle burst into her song in the Central park, NY .
My friend Rani tries hard, not to start singing loud while in office or with her hubby . Her husband like many others feel that bursting in a song is unreal . I too resist my urge to sing --- mostly . But I do sing loud with the radio, when I am alone in the car and of course, I am an experienced bathroom singer. But even on other occasions it is difficult not to imagine a song in my mind. Try this, it is very de-stressing to imagine a song with you in its picturisation while you are in between a boring meeting /conference. Or still better, give lines to each of the persons sitting with you( of course in your mind). This game is so hilarious that at times I find myself smiling or giggling while others give me puzzled look. But take it from me that this is just a poor substitute of the joy you can feel rushing into you while singing out loud. Uncaring of your creaking voice, unaware of the frowns from others and ignoring the astonished look of people walking with you. Its most liberating feeling that dawn on you when you unbind yourself from what others will say. It is almost magical. So take my advice and next time you find Julie Andrews declaring hills to be alive with the sound of music, do not hesitate in joining her in her declaration. …and remember to do it aloud . Musicals , I repeat , are manifestations of how things should be - alive , happy and moving .

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My University Town : A decade after

I am not surprised why I never bothered to come back to Allahabad once I passed out from the University almost 15 years back. Even now, it is compulsion of official work that brought me here. I am sure readers of my blog know what a big sucker I am ,of old memories and nostalgia. But somehow, I was never fond of this sleepy conservative town. My association with the city ended after my graduation from the university. I have already confessed in one of my earlier posts my ignorance about a lot of things associated with the history of this city . Somehow , I was so disappointed by its tardiness , lethargy and typical regressive attitude that I failed to see the beauty …even when it was in front of my eyes. Its not that I never had good times here, it was just that I missed some aspects of the town, which I would have liked otherwise in any place . But today when I go back there , I have an insuppressible urge to visit my University. Somehow, I want to be sure of what I remember about the place. I finish off my official work and almost forced my friends from Univ days to come along . Somehow sometimes even memories need company to be talked and thus sound real . So we reached the science faculty ( former Muir Central College) and once again walked through the corridors of this impressive stone building . Department of mathematics—our department, the place where we spent many years talking , teasing and at times, ignoring one another . Its so amazing that not much has changed since then. The maintenance is as poor as ever. The stone building and our favorite Vijayanagaram hall stands as tall as ever . Even the students look much like those days. But three of us visiting the place, were changed. The big world outside this town changed us. We talked incessantly about our batchmates, mimicked our professors and joked about the famous oddballs of our times. Interestingly we found ourselves talking about topics we would have not talked when we were here. Crushes, heartbreaks , complexes, fears and much more. It was so weird when my friend Prasoon pointed out that he never noticed how tall I am . And immediately he added in very matter of fact voice that anyways, it was impossible for him to measure my height by standing next to me in those days . We laughed about how some of us were terribly scared and uncomfortable in interactions with other sex. We laughed out loud about the conservative times – times when our mixed group was scolded by a professor for sitting together on stairs in front of the department . It was considered very indecent . We wondered how from that kind of life most of us went and conquered the world without much problem. It was so heartening to find that from that small group almost everybody is so well settled in life and career today.I find it amazing that most of us connect somewhere so deeply despite our professional, locational and other differences. Probably unknown to us, the city and the university taught us something that stayed and become part of us. I am not talking about the mathematical equations and statistical models , of course.
After this , I moved on alone exploring the town I hardly remember . It was kind of empowering not to belong here.I had few hours of a lovely evening and I knew no one and cared for no one this time . I started from the rivers. After all the presence of these holy rivers and their confluence is one of the biggest claim to fame for this town from past many centuries. I climbed stairs for the new Naini bridge and looked around the beauty of the river . The fort built by emperor Akbar was visible from there . Except for occasional fishermen trying their luck the ghats were almost deserted. The rivers were full with monsoon supply and the setting sun provided excellent background.
On my way back I looked for the Gora Kabristan ( The British Graveyard) at kydganj . It was difficult to resist visiting this old cemetery . But with ASI in charge , the gates were locked and no one was around except the blue board declaring it a protected monument .I cursed ASI once again . But then when have I considerred closed gates a bar for y curiosity– specially if they are gates to a such an old cemetery . So while my driver looked incredulously , I jumped the gate . In a very touching gesture, protectively, he followed suit- nodding disapprovingly all through . The place is a must go for anyone tracing history of the place . This being an old cantonment town, the graves are usually of army officers and their families. Once again like the Park street cemetery of Kolkata , the age profile of the dead is generally below 30 . Mostly the tombstones were missing . I could read one , remembering Margaret, 23, a wife and mother who succumbed to disease in 1808. It is somewhat moving that these people died on a foreign land young vulnerable to heat and mosquitos . From there , I went to see All Saint Cathedral – my favorite stone church and found that locked too. To my driver’s relief I did not jump anymore gates. The church compound was green and untidy with the undergrowth of weeds and grass. But somehow despite all the mess, the building is a stunner . I looked the evening light on it mesmerized . I think I had more than enough share of replenishment for my memories of this town for one evening .
I know, I still do not want to live in this town…but at least now, I do not miss the beautiful British bunglows lining the civil lines , the old trees around the cathedral and most of all , my alma mater- the university .

(Find more pics of my visit here )

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Train Times

Today ,I am travelling by train after quite some time . Off late I have switched on to road and air travel- mostly due to time compulsions . But I always believed that I am very much a train-person. I feel totally at home in trains . This time however, I found myself bit nervous while dealing with the crowd and chaos that prevailed on the platform. I was kind of relived when I was alone in my coupe and the train left station . The familiarity of sounds and sight returned soon afterwards. While reading a wonderful book by Joanne Harris I found my mind was going back remembering – my train times . The time spent during my train journeys . I am surprised how we always felt comfortable travelling in ordinary class . The questions of security and hygiene never bothered us much in those days. Striking conversation with strangers was never difficult. The alertness , the guarded behavior or the fear of getting cheated somehow was not this much. I was remembering the heated debates on politics, cricket and all other general subjects with the co-passengers. It seems everyone was interested in talking . Today of course I find almost everyone either playing with his/her mobile, laptop, mp3 player or sleeping . I cannot complaint because I too am doing the same. People are curt and businesslike in talking with co-passengers . In my university days , it was difficult for me to catch a train from Allahabad and not to find someone or the other from the university in it. Instantly the conversation will start about comparing different departments, professors, hostels etc . Looking back I think it was quite funny . It was somehow so important to prove our point . People would not mind sharing food or magazines, Even the railways staff would at times take part in these regular train discussions. I was never a card player …so my favorite way to spent time was to look out of window . My mind can still visualize those scenes. Later while travelling to Bengal, I realized how dry and barren those fields were in comparison to the green Bengal land. Thankfully this years monsoon was very good and even in north India the fields are full of crops – green and prosperous. A happy sign to witness from the train window.
Incidentally the train experience is also never uniform. Its different while you travel in the toy train from shimla and different when you travel in Konkan railways. I cannot help remembering the happy days of my two Bharat Darshans when we had spent a lot of time(usually nights) in the trains. It is great fun to travel in a group. The continuous singing , teasing, dumb charade and chatting is unforgettable. I still remember when from my university- we were taken on a study tour. What fun we had in train journey to and fro. Of course it must be a nuisance for the fellow passengers. A bunch of noisy college goers are hardly ideal travel companions and we really behaved like brats. So much so our HOD had to get up in the night and shout at us. The giggling and pillow chats continued despite that . Travelling is always interesting, but the flood of memories most of us face while travelling by trains is incomparable . Each one of us has his/her own unforgettable train times.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Passing on the baton- Fasting feasting and more

I am sure for each generation there comes a time, when they wonder about what they are passing on to the next generation. More likely to be when they start getting old enough to miss their younger days and not too old to forget those. Its very human to try to hold on things and traits familiar to one’s life. Change is unsettling and unknown. Most of us try to renounce the new ways as inferior and lacking in values least till it is too late . I read somewhere in Readers’ Digest that when rock music came , the previous generation declared it death of the music . Some people still argue that email and e-chatting ruined the romance of an actual face to face tête-à-tête and handwritten letters. In our country for last three generations parents thought that they have lost the battle for morals and culture with the coming of Gramophone, cinema and TV soaps respectively. But each generation survived and flourished- defined their own values, culture and moral fabric in its own ways. I often feel that a lot was lost/missed in between the transition . But you can’t miss what you don’t know…so life goes on. Before I philosophize more on the issue I must tell you the context . I went to my hometown- lucknow last week . Like all people who are away from the towns they grew up in, whenever i go, I try to spot familiar things, sights, smells and sounds. It was rather interesting timing to visit this city .It is the time when one can witness the ganga –jamuni culture at its best. I reached there on Rakshabandhan day and will be returning again on the day of Janmashtami. Of course, the holy month of Ramadan is going on and half the city was fasting and waiting for Eid . These days are special for the city and they have always been so .
Though most Indian cities are now losing their old character – at least the very visible sights of it, Lucknow always celebrated festivals in style. Even when the new stuff is paving way for the old…it was the mix of the two I found in my town this time. Well, we might have new Barista and Café coffee day now….we still have our Royal café. But for some of us the change is unsettling . You can’t blame us. Those of us who left the city years back , now go back there and try to look for familiar sounds, sights and smells to renew our days . Alas, things change…and so do cities. An old shopkeeper in Hazratganj told me that the Mehfils which marked the hours after Iftar are gone . In very characteristic lehza he bitterly told that no one bothers about the usual chit chat unless they are in a TVchat show and getting paid to talk
.Thanks to the politicians iftar parties had long lost their pure social and religious meaning . The weight conscious youngsters no longer enjoy the famous nahari kulchas and other traditional stuff used to break the roza. Even the famous shops of Nazeerabad, Akbari gate and rest of old lucknow have lost the glitter and activities of iftaar . After two three hours of iftaar these shops are closed like regular days . One will still find the stalls of Kashmiri chai or huge makeshift shops selling seviyans but the ramzani raunak of our good old days is definitely lost. Even when the new generation goes for these products, they prefer taking it from the outlets in the malls rather than the old town. People no longer prefer the leisure and the joy of conversation at a shop anymore. A witty repartee or a clever remark from the shop owner …a couplet or two to answer a question from the panwallah , no longer interests the people. The customers look for business like efficiency and that’s all.
The point I am trying to reach is that while I find ( and feel happy to find) malls, multiplexes and known food chains wherever I go , I do feel a pang in my heart for the era that is lost. Its not only about eateries . I wonder who will remember the floral rakhis on rakshabandhan few years from now. These rakhis made from real flowers and customized as per the insistence of the sisters buying them, were visible at every florist shop of lucknow till 3-4 years back. I try telling myself that these things hardly matter. If we looked for those rakhis in our days the new generation has fancy gadgets and chocolates to find on this day .
But the sense of missing a part of my familiar world does not go easily . Everytime we have a family gathering my aunts and sisters end up talking about old family recipes and efforts made to make those perfect pickles, papad and other mouthwatering dishes meant for special occasions. I always loved the festival of janmashtami and the fast which comes with it . Being the foodie I am , the reason was the special dishes made up of dryfruits, coconut and other stuff. The vrat food which was “allowed” in a fast. The tradition is almost lost in my family. Even I do not care to make these delicacies in my home . The food we eat is mostly the same throughout the year . The joy of eating khichuri on a particular day and roasted green gram on other has given place to easier options. Of course, we have adopted many more dishes in our menu but the tradition of making a particular dish for a particular festival/day is not there anymore. May be the next generation will not miss these traditions- we have afterall not passed it on to them . For kids in my colony these “ minor” festivals are just school holidays and they feel happy about it by watching their favorite shows or playing computer games . It is in vain to feel sorry about old things which are going out of fashion. It is somewhat inevitable. Perhaps it is more important to hold on tightly with our values . I just hope that we are missing on just the most visible parts of legacy and not the most important ones. I mean as long as families enjoy happy times together , it hardly makes a difference whether it is in a family gathering eating traditional kheer or enjoying a TV show eating pizza.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Failure is easy to live with ..isn’t it ?

I am very clumsy when it comes to console anyone grieving for a loss, a failure or a disappointment. Last night I did some introspection on it . Actually the Civil services Prelims results are out and a very dear bunch of youngsters who are very close to me and hubby, failed to make it this time. Social niceties expect me to talk to them and say- It’s alright. But then, saying “it’s alright “goes against my nature. I was unable to say these two words to myself when I failed earlier. Even now I firmly believe that any failure, any disappointment is not alright. Well, I am a big sucker of the self motivation books- ‘Think like a winner!’ Success is never ending!’ ‘Tough times never last ‘….and many more. I regularly read and distribute the fable like stories say- The Little prince, The Alchemist etc. But God knows, I am totally unforgiving when it comes to failure. Mine or of people around me. My best friend some time back joked that phoenix must be my favorite bird. If one lesson I have learnt from failure is that it just shows –the best was not good enough. For me every exam, every challenge and every assignment is like a riddle. There is at least one solution available….and in most cases there is one best solution too. All I need to do is to find this one. But failure is never alright ….I do not actually agree with the fatalist philosophy of: May be god has a better plan. I know that whatever I can desire, I can make it happen to me and around me. It’s just a question of mental strength….a question of believing that you deserve better.
But what to do with the socially required consolation? I know I mutter some words half heartedly—but I do not believe in them. I also totally despise self pitying people – people who feel devastated just after a failure or two. Have you not met people who keep dwelling on their failures- sometimes for rest of their lives? Sometimes blaming the circumstances or others for it …or even worse blaming themselves and feeling terribly sorry. People who carefully nurture their fears and phobias and ensure they do not get the most desirable deal out of life in this process. Even the best and most sincere people around me rely on fears and tears while dealing with failures. I wonder why they do not feel ANGRY the way I do when I fail. Guess, it is easy to feel sorry about oneself. But the sad part is this feeling sorry phase does not end till it convinces you that may it was ‘ alright ‘ to fail….may be you never deserved what you aspired for. I respect people who learn to see silver lining in the darkest cloud too but I admire those who fight till they leave all dark clouds behind them.
In my opinion, the only way one can turn failures into successes is by not accepting failures. Dwelling them just to learn where the riddle’s best solution was missed and going ahead once again with much stronger resolve to succeed. Most people fail to do that. Failure is never okay-because it stops you from being where you wanted to be. …at least for some time. That time may be precious…it may never come again. That you might get to live life full of beautiful moments /great experiences meanwhile, is another story . I know many people who because of some failed dream accidently found their true vocation, true partner and true destination. But that is not the point. While internet is full of motivational stuff telling you - how to turn failure into success and while many are making a career out of this –my policy is simple. I can do anything I put my mind to. I can do it; I can do it, IF I put my mind to it.” Saying this to yourself and BELIEVING it does not come naturally to most people. And that perhaps ensures that the winner stands alone at the top!

So even at a risk of sounding cruel and competitive I'd say that failure is very easy to live with , fears become old pals if you allow them to accompany you all the time - its the succcess which is difficult to hold and get habituated to .

Monday, June 14, 2010

Musings on Museums in India

When I was a child , my parents always made us visit museums – small and big museums. Whereever we went, visit to the local museums and site museums was must. They took special care to make us read what was written on the boards there and try to understand it better by reading more books on that. Honestly speaking, at that time I hardly understood what I was seeing let alone its importance . In school , I read about the efforts of early 20th Century archeologists to dig up the ancient sites about India . Again, at that time it was difficult for me to understand how important these excavations were. Then one fine day while sorting out old dust laden and moth eaten books in my grandfather’s room at his Lucknow house I came across his school text books of history. I realized that there was something weird . I mean the chapters about Harrappan (Indus Valley ) civilizations were not there. Neither was any mention of King Harsha or Budhha’s life in India . A lot of history was different from what we read as history. My granddad explained to me about how in his school days knowledge about the Indian civilization was limited. Much less had any documentary evidence beyond folk tales and some unauthenticated articles about its ancientness. It took a bunch of zealous Indologists to dig up India’s past and tell Indians about their history. Much later, during my probationary days I visited most of the well known museums across our country. I also read extensively about famous world museums like the Louvre while auditing some of the oldest museums in Kolkata . I was heartbroken to see how less we value the treasures stored in these museums .

Yesterday , with my 12 year old nephew I visited two museums. First was the Nehru memorial, Teen murti bhawan museum and the second was Shankar’s international Doll’s Museum. Both places need immediate repair, renovation and upgradation. Since then I am thinking about the condition of museums I have seen. The earliest necessity to house objects of antiquarian remains dates back to late 1796 AD when the Asiatic Society of Bengal felt the need to house the enormous collection of archaeological, ethnological, geological, zoological pursuits. However, the first museum by them was started in 1814. The nucleus of this Asiatic Society Museum later provided to the Indian Museum, Calcutta. I had one of my first assignment to audit security and preservation of artefacts in these three of the most important Indian museums at Kolkata. This is what we found . It was a sad picture of how ignorant and uncaring we could be towards our heritage. And its not about only museums of historical importance - generally (mis) managed by ASI. The same holds true for science museums, Art museums, even about museums related to Railways, dolls and other such articles. These days people hardly visit museums. These days government hardly takes care of museums. Very few scholars are passionate about the preservation of our national heritage and people generally managing these institutions are sadly, apathetic and disinterested. How else you can explain the pathetic condition of Red fort ….all water bodies dry, all buildings bearing a sad look and ugly ropes barring visitors to go near. People are still visiting these places…but I wonder what will they learn. Few years back in Qutub Complex in Delhi, while visiting with an international group, we found a ASI approved guide telling all kinds of fictional stories about the place. He even mentioned authority of his stories as a Rupee 10 worth book printed in Delhi. Not only this, in Fatehpur Sikri at Agra, we had a guide telling us about the most important event related to the place- shooting of movie Pardes, for which Shahrukh khan came to the place. I am sure emperor Akbar turned in his grave every time this was mentioned. Its not only history about which we are insensitive . We have a similar disinterest for art and science too. Tagore’s Shantiniketan( now Vishwa Bharti University) has statues and murals made by world famous artists lying in open subjected to elements of nature …some in state of crumbling. Similar is the fate of Tagore’s original paintings lying in the stores of the Kala Bhawan for years. National Library at Kolkata also gave the horrifying picture of neglect- people working there do not love the books they collect. Much like the curators of the museums. I wonder what is the condition of state museums at Allahabad, Mathura and Sarnath….which I visited as a child. I know things are pretty shabby at Lucknow, Agra and in Shimla. Many of the old sites and site museums are in the hands of trusts who do not care to look after them.

Its not that there are no efforts to improve the condition of these museums- for example the Lucknow Residency Museum is pretty good so are some of the museums in Rajasthan . I also met a very impressive curator at Coochbehar sometime back- who was very passionate about restoration and preservation of Coochbehar Palace museum. But such efforts would not do much till we find common people interested in history and curious about the things stored in these museum. I found that most young parents feel that books and CD ROMs can give the knowledge required for their kids and they do not need to see the places and things . They rarely take kids to museums- even schools these days organize visits to fun parks and picnic spots rather than museums . No wonder kids neither find the dusty manuscripts and statues appealing nor understand their value . Surprising in Delhi where we have perhaps the biggest numebr of museums , we also have the most apparent dislike to visit the museums. People do not visit NGMA, National Museum or Museum of Natural History unless they have any specific reason to do so. Very few know about the memorial museums and their condition- while some of the prime properties of Central Delhi have been taken to house these . Most Delhites would rather go to a mall than to the beautiful National Crafts museum . Very few would know about the National philatelic museum or Rail Museum .

The more I see the world ,the more ashamed I feel about our apathy for our museums and our heritage stored in these museums. In Shanghai while visiting the Shanghai city gallery at pearl tower I wondered why we do not have such gallery for any of our old cities. The only similar gallery I can think of is Calcutta Gallery at Victoria Memorial hall…which is on a much smaller scale and well, needs serious up gradation . I keep on hearing about upgradation of museums like Shankar’s Doll Museum or Rail Museum too. But the efforts do not seem very apparent. Our apathy for showcasing our heritage was also visible at Shanghai Expo where the Indian pavilion has old cutouts and pictures only to showcase our culture. We do not bother to make multimedia films like China. People tell me that almost all old cities in India have material comparable to full countries of western world…but they go far far ahead from us in showcasing and preserving their heritage. London and Paris for example, remained world class cosmopolitan cities but always gave due importance to their heritage. I wonder why we , Indians , can not be like that ?