Saturday, December 31, 2011

What if the Mayans were right?

Have you heard about the World ending on December 21, 2012 as per the Mayan Prophecy? Chances are that you have. For the last few months and specially after the movie 2012, there have been a lot of discussions on the 2012 phenomenon which the Mayan calendar (or its modern interpretation ) holds.
The 2012 phenomenon comprises a range of viewpoints according to which disastrous or transformative events will occur on December 21, 2012. To some, this date is regarded as the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Meso-american Long Count calendar. Various astronomical alignments and numerological formulae related to this date have been proposed. Another interpretation of this transition is that this date marks the start of time in which Earth and its inhabitants may undergo a positive physical or spiritual transformation, and that 2012 may mark the beginning of a new era. Others suggest that the 2012 date marks the end of the world or a similar catastrophe. Scenarios suggested for the end of the world include the arrival of the next solar maximum, or Earth's collision with a passing asteroid or a planet called "Nibiru". It will definitely remain a subject of curiosity and debate what Mayans meant by the “end” of the calendar. Whatever little I know of that civilisation, it seems unlikely that such optimistic and scientific civilisation was actually thinking of an end as –THE END. But one would not know till the date arrives (and hopefully passes on).
But reading about this, and generally joking on this phenomenon, made me think. We all have heard the famous saying -

“Dance as if no one were watching, Sing as if no one were listening, and live every day as if it were your last”

But few of us are able to live lives like that.

There have been many imaginary takes on the last part of the saying “ every day as if it were your last.” I know at least half a dozen movies, plays and books where one central character (mistakenly) gets the impression that he is going to die in a day/ month / few months and that has a comical and dramatic change in the way he lives. People also attempt to list out things they would like to do before they die....but what would you do if you know the end is fixed and you know about it. Just as an experiment, let us imagine that your life is going to end tomorrow night. You have 24 hours to live. How would you live? Would you wait for the hour to approach with fear and panic or you would be calm and cool about it. May be you’d like to have your last party with friends. May be you’d like to spend all the money lying in your bank account? Depending on your personality type- this can be a funny, curious or sickening thought.

I for sure know I would not care about the “important” and “urgent” things on my work table. I would also ignore the decorum and conduct becoming of an officer. I would rather go out and enjoy the pale sunshine of winter. Observe people passing by. Eat what I love to eat (read fattening and more fattening dishes) and go and meet the people for whom I care (but usually forget to call/meet). Come to think of it, I may also give a piece of my mind to few and give unsolicited advice to few others. Write mails to all my crushes and write a will for my huge collection of comic books. Laze around at home and may be sitting pretty updating my Facebook status (through my newly acquired android phone), when the time comes.

Then I extended the experiment and started imagining how others would react to such a situation. Hubby dear (being rational and proud of it!) would definitely discard such nonsensical prophecy, but somehow, if brought to believe, would rush to make his essential phone calls (LOL!). Mom may even worry about the remaining food in the fridge and a particular colleague would pay last visits to the big bosses in HQ. A friend in media will give 6 new ideas how to cover the event of the Doomsday and my walking partner would be depressed to know that after so much efforts to lose the Kilos she won’t live to fit in that new dress. My dear brother-in law will jump to catch his last nap and another girl I know would be “really sorry” that the world is ending and she can’t stop it. The list can go on. The experiment cheered me up endlessly on this winter morning.

But on a serious note, I know at the end of the day my thoughts would be somewhat echoing the sentiments expressed in John Denver’s famous song “Poems, Prayers and Promises”.

“And I have to say it now, It’s been a good life all in all

It's really fine to have a chance to hang around

And lie there by the fire and watch the evening tire

..........And talk of poems and prayers and promises

And things that we believe in .

How sweet it is to love someone, how right it is to care!

How long it's been since yesterday, and what about tomorrow?

And what about our dreams and all the memories we share

The days they pass so quickly now...Nights are seldom long

And time around me whispers when it's cold

The changes somehow frighten me still I have to smile

It turns me on to think of growing old, for though my life's been good to me

There's still so much to do"

(listen to the full song here .)

NB: Whether or not the Mayans calculated it right – we definitely have another New Year to welcome tomorrow. Wish all of you the very best of 2012 ....with or without the doomsday. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cook it up Babe!

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
Harriet Van Horne
For many like me who cook three times a day and love it, cooking is an expression of our personalities. It somewhere defines us. It is part of a tradition, a culture and always a welcome topic of conversation. I can talk, preach and watch cooking without getting bored for hours. Even the thought of cooking is so happy and of course happier is the sound and aroma coming out of a busy active home kitchen. It’s heartening to see that cooking as an art is finally getting its due. It’s no longer what a housewife does or an act of bare necessity, a symbol of a woman slaving unpaid and un-praised - at least for many of us. Of course there are others who love to eat and hate to cook- both with same intensity. (I would consider this types suffering from a personality disorder) Then there is another variety, who hate to cook, hate to eat and for them all talk on food is trash (I do not dislike such folks; I pity them for being such uncultured fools).

But for those of us for whom good cooking is like a prayer- pious and selfless, a whole new world is unfolding. I was born in a house where food was an evergreen topic of conversation. Each season had its special dishes, pickles, sauces and sweets. My family would go to any extent to ensure we fulfill the gastronomic rituals of eating Kulfis and chaats in the summers, Pakoras and Ghevars in Rains and Carrot-Halwa, cakes and Gur sweets in the winters. Then there were family recipes of particular curries and koftas, rice pudding and stuffed parathas. No wonder when I think of seasons, I think of food associated with it. Even my memories of particular days are intertwined with memories of food cooked on those days. There was a typical menu for my birthday which falls in winters and another typical menu for holi day in the month of March and so on. Of course, festivals have little meaning without the food that comes with it. The food preferences and recipes differ greatly in different families but still we all crave for home-cooked food some day in our lives. In variably the definition of home-cooked is what we ate in our childhood days.

As I said earlier, cooking is finally getting recognition. It remained a neglected art for centuries. Many of us have heard of painters, singers and writers of various ages in History. Can anyone tell me names of some legendary cooks? Say who in Noorjahan’s kitchen came up with the divine recipe of Gulab Sherbet. Or who baked the first Bourbons in the Royal French Kitchen? Little was known or written on these topics before. But now in recent years a lot of research is going on to discover our culinary past. There is of course still a good scope to document and research our old recipes and their origin, the history and the art of cooking in various regions and how it defined the people who ate these dishes.

Talking of legendary cooks, I must acknowledge that one very admirable fact about Bengal is the respect given to the cooks in that province. Right or wrong- but they do know and recall which shop/ who invented Rasogulla? And one which day their popular sweet Ledikeni (named in honour of Lady Canning – the sweat was prepared for the first time by sweat shop owners of Burdwan in honour of Lady’s visit to the town)) was first made. Many years back the first cooking expert I heard about was Tarla Dalal. She came to my life through a cook book which accidently landed up in mail one day and stayed with us. Her vegetarian recipes came very handy for the bunch of us when Mom left for my eldest sister’s place and the cook fell ill. Those were my earliest memories of independent cooking. But even before that as kids, Mom allowed us to make one samosa or make one chapati as part of our play. I was in College when I met my cooking Guru- Kamie auntie. Our very generous neighbour who spent time and effort to my half baked (literally) attempts towards baking and more. It was she who made me fall in love with cooking as an art, to read about recipes, to compare them and to talk of cooking equipments.

Today I watch at least 6 cooking shows on TV and regularly glance through the recipe sections in magazines and newspapers. I also browse food blogs and have my favorites too. Recipes are a treasure trove to explore. Every family has them. Some comes to us naturally by watching our moms and Grand moms cooking, others are acquired on inquiry from aunts and sisters (in my case even uncles and brothers). Nowadays you can also download some more recipes from net and even share them with friends. For me Nigella Lawson and Nita Mehta are no less celebrity than Barak Obama or Shahrukh Khan. I watch the shows reverently and read the books as “pep-me-up” reading.

Interestingly the love for cooking no longer remains a “women’s only” trait. Though in my family and many others, the male side has been actively involved in cooking…. It was by and large a woman’s domain till recently. I was so pleasantly surprised to find a friend in my Italian class proudly declaring that both her dad and her sis are chefs. Even in popular culture, the image of woman cooking and men eating is changing.
Another very visible change is the globalization of cuisine. In India we no longer just eat Indian. We experiment with our own dishes and adopt the foreign ones too. Even in other parts of the world there is a lot of awareness and acceptance of various cuisine traditions. Even fusion cooking is getting popular which kind of mingles the best of all to create even better.

There is a lot I can write about cooking, about the changing face of our kitchens, the legendary cook books and favorite recipes. But for now, in this festive season, let me just ponder over the fact how a hearty meal can reconcile all differences and makes a man feel more charitable toward the world than any sermon. My cooking pals would vouch for me that a well raised soft cake made by you can fill you with so much happiness that can hardly be compared to most things and phenomenon of the human world. But recipe is just a tool to create the magic. As Madam Benoit noted in her famous cook show: A recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation. In my culinary journey, the variations have at times turned disastrous and on other times amazed me at my own fluke. They say that the magic lies in the hands. The same recipe will give different results with different cooks. Some even believe that even the cook’s emotions and feelings have an impact on the outcome. I do not know that for sure, but can certify the therapeutic side of cooking. It’s a great stress buster. It engages all your senses and is a very fulfilling experience.

Cooking traditions are an astute index of a family’s lineage in my eyes. Great families have always been proud of great family recipes and the family kitchen. As they say- you are what you eat.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Let us list

I am a compulsive list maker. My family, my colleagues and friends will vouch for the fact as every day, I make several lists manually and electronically. I list out things to do- things to buy on my way back home, things to pack for vacations, things to complete in the weekend and even things I have to discuss with boss when I go to his room. That’s not all -I also make lists of books to read, movies to download, places to visit.....even people to meet when I go to my hometown next. Something like the movie "Dasvidania" I also have a dream list of things to do before I die. 
          Now with years of this habit,  I realise that in the habit of list making- likes attract likes. Many of my friends on facebook make lists of “50 random things about me”, “6 great books to read” , “5 people who changed the world” etc etc. I get forward mails on - things to keep yourself fit, “ things you should not say to children”, “ Top 10 motivational quotes”, “Top 10 Codes You Aren't Meant to Know” etc . I even subscribe to Man booker award’s short lists and long lists in my email. When we get transferred from a city to another , I made list of stuff in each box and then a list of boxes too. While hosting friends for a meal, I list out the dishes and also the tasks one day before. My friends believe that my life is lived from one list to the other. But well, I love making lists!

And come on, I am not the only one. Every day parlance is littered with lists: laundry, grocery, shopping, honey-do, to-do. In fact buried deep in the fine print of every wedding is a clause that legally enables the creation of the “Honey-Do” list. For those not familiar with it (read: all unmarried men), the “Honey-Do” list is a compilation of tasks, chores, repairs, and improvements that wives would like their husbands to accomplish.( Quite obviously, the list never dies...but then, we can’t stop hoping , can we?) My hubby gets it quite frequently. I would never understand what is so irritating about a list. I mean, don’t they make lists in business and work too. I read somewhere that when Dick Cheney was asked by then-presidential candidate George Bush to find him a suitable running mate, Cheney did what any decent man would  do: He drew up a short list. Incidentally I do the same whenever, my better half asks me what I need on my next birthday – I make a long and a short list . Needless to say he hates my “listing- everything” habit . I keep telling him that actually it’s not that bad. Lists, looking rationally, really get to the heart of what it is we need to do to get through another day on this planet.
But of all the lists I make, the most frequent ones are obviously my shopping lists. Interestingly enough, most of the days either do not find the list (in my bag) or do not consult it when I reach market. Still it’s a comfort to know that a list is there somewhere. While shopping for veggies or groceries, I am usually governed by my mood, the colours and aroma. In no time my bags are full with an assortment of eatable I do not know what I am gonna do with. Still it is very satisfying feeling to see them on my kitchen counter. Once I have brought them, I will find a way to use them.

That in short shows how lists are useful- and how they are not useful. They do not actually dictate us in our lives but they do help in organising, in turning the vague subject in finite doable tasks. Most of the time they are just a comfort thread for us to resort in case of crisis. With the coming of electronic lists, we need not even carry the lists physically with us. My to-do list features prominently on my iGoogle homepage – is just a click away where ever I am.

A friend who is mother of two and a list making enthusiast once told me that she makes the list so that end of the day crossing all/most of the entries would give her a feeling of “day- well – lived” . Another one argues that without lists her life is chaotic, unorganised but less stressful. She feels the burden of completing everything on the list before the end of the day. I think both of them have a point . But for me , lists are often a method to day dream. Imagine ticking even one entry on my dream list of places to visit – it fills you with so much of happiness, the feeling of achievement and satisfaction.

It’s kind of heartening to find that I am not alone in this list –making business. Every day in malls, in office corridors and even in books I find people mentioning lists or referring to it. With so many widgets and websites for making lists – I am sure the tribe of list-makes is prospering. Internet infomrs me that notable list makers include Thomas Jefferson, Peter Mark Roget, Martha Stewart and Benjamin Franklin. Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson even noted that, "Franklin loved making lists. He made lists of rules for his tradesmen's club, of synonyms for being drunk, of maxims for matrimonial happiness and of reasons to choose an older woman as a mistress. Most famously, as a young man, he made a list of personal virtues that he determined should define his life." All these just give me hopes to excel further in this habit .
The other day I read an article criticising the "pop culture epidemic" of making Top ten lists of everything. The arguement was that the authority with which the ranking is done is not established . If you ask me, I wouldn't care much for the authority. VEry frequently while searching movies of a particular period or genre I love to search out these lists made by random people. If Ilike them its okay, and if I don't then I discard . But experience says that if you go through 4-5 lists on a particular subject the individual bias can be removed to a large extent. I mean , how else one would digg out the best movies shot in Tuscany or Best mystery books of 1950s?
Now before I go back to my work, I must tick off " Publish blog post " on my Today's do list .

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Was it just a dream ?

“So long ago
Was it in a dream, was it just a dream?
I know, yes I know
Seemed so very real, it seemed so real to me

Took a walk down the street

Thru the heat whispered trees

I thought I could hear (hear, hear, hear)
Somebody call out my name as it started to rain”
- John Lennon (Dream)

Have you ever wondered about the dreams? Stories that our mind weaves when we are asleep. And also the visions for future which keep us awake for nights – rushing adrenaline in our veins. Dreams are also the hopes that keep us alive when the real world disappoints us. If you ask me, dreams are magnificent journeys that never cost us anything, but are invaluable in the way they make us thrive, inspire us and push us to seek more. In our dreams (especially the ones we see with open eyes) we are strong, we are powerful, we are beautiful, creative and we are forever young. In short, we are everything we aspire to be – at times to the tiniest detail. Our dreams have the power to make us feel like superheroes, an alluring vamp or just a love struck teenager with an incongruous crush. They also have the power to make us feel scared like a five year old, haunted like a ruin and diseased like a leper. It is so sad that day-dreaming is at times ridiculed. To me it sounds like a very important and creative phase for any important achievement in life

I am an addicted, incorrigible dreamer. I dream with my eyes open and closed. I dream about so many things and people – and so often that at times I find it difficult to believe that they don’t exist. I mean, I get such vivid memories of these dreams that I wonder if in my old age I would actually start considering them real.

I dream myself alive. I dream of fascinating places ...or experiences I would never have. I dream myself as an eagle sitting on a branch of tree overlooking a valley. I dream myself falling from the peaks enjoying the fall. I also sometimes dream weird. I see deaths and destructions. I see myself trapped in a place. These moments are so real for my mind that I am sure the real experience would not be much different from that. Once or twice I thought of keeping a record of my dreams but being always bad with words, the dreams sounded so lacklustre once they were put on paper. I could never describe them with the verve with which they come to me.

Dreams fascinate me. Although I am never sure what might actually trigger me to tumble into a dream, I am capable of closing my eyes and stringing together stories and tales, sometimes of such precise details, I can almost feel, smell and taste them. Some of these dreams, when they turn up before me in reality, they leave me stunned. I almost feel that I have created them.

I am sure there have always been people like me who believe so seriously in dreaming. There are mornings when I wake up giggling with the memory of some weird dream and there are those sudden frightful moments when I force myself to open my eyes to escape some scary dream. There is a good reason why in all ancient cultures and civilisations we have sayings about dreams. We even had people who could interpret dreams. There is a significance attached to the dreams one sees on special occasions. Like the vision of Mahamaya before the birth of Siddhartha or Lincoln dreaming about his assassination.

Many celebrated poets and writers, mathematicians and scientists claim to find their inspirations and discoveries in their dreams. I read about mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujam, who claimed that goddess Namakkal, would appear and present mathematical formulae in his dreams which he would verify after waking. The tune for "Yesterday" came to Paul McCartney in a dream... and so did the idea of Frankenstein to Mary Shelly. Many others kings, statesmen and writers found their dreams guiding them in real life. I totally buy these stories as I have firsthand experience of such guiding dreams. Many of our myths and legends talk about famous dreams and their interpretations. We have popular literature, songs and movies inspired by dreams.
It is generally believed that the mind plays tricks with our dominant thoughts and concerns to put across a blend of scenes, sounds and emotions as the dreams. But then how does one explain the totally unrelated dreams about things you do not know exist and places you have never been to. I guess, it is this dilemma that led to the explanation that dreams are when angels try to converse with humans.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In the Land of Extremes

The very first day, my two companions declared that they see no beauty in the barren mud mountains. I told them to be patient. By the end of the seventh day , I had one definitive and one hesitant convert. Being there once, I know it takes time for our sensibilities to appreciate beauty in “nothing”. Yes, at that height- it is nothing that prevails. Miles after miles without any vegetation, bird or flower. The freezing streams too match the colour of mountains with mud in them. The glazing sun burning your skin hardly helps the matter. But with all this – Ladakh is beautiful. It is hauntingly bare and stunningly enthralling. It lures different people for different reasons. The peace seeking troubled souls for its Gompas and the adventure tourists for its imposing passes, geologists to study its ecosystem and the historian to get the pulse of its rich history.  The place has so many shades and colours that at times one fails to appreciate all of them at one go.

The land like its neighbouring Tibet is a land of dhamma. It is the land of Gompas and prayer wheels, prayer flags and Buddhist paintings – even on the high mountains these signs of Buddhism very defiantly declare the presence of this peace loving ideology. I always find it very intriguing, how this particular philosophy conquered some of the toughest terrains of the world and managed to rule the hearts of these people for centuries. Sometimes I feel that Buddhism in this region is very much like the Gompas which stand high above every habitation almost hanging from the peaks. These monasteries are fascinating.

 Some like Alchi and Lamayuru are definitely ancient places of worship. They bear such solemn and “knowing” look of their ancientness that even most unobservant visitor would note it  Others like Thiksey, Likir etc are very alive, very happy places to be. But the Monastery which stole my heart in first look was not one of these. Deep inside the Nubra Valley, while your eyes are still adjusting to the change of scenery from the snow peaked mountains to the white sand dunes, you find a huge Maitreya statue welcoming you to Diskit.  In Diskit, next to a huge waterfall stands the beautiful Diskit monastery- the oldest and the biggest in the entire valley.

The 32 metre tall Maitreya statue facing down the Shyok River towards Siachin is of course a recent addition to the place. The monastery however stands guard there from 14th century onwards. The architecture is very interesting and reminds you more of a fortress than a Gompa.  Perhaps there was good reason for such a built. Being located on the Silk Route – this monastery has a series of attacks from robbers lured by its legendary wealth donated by the traders over the centuriesand also the reigning Kings of the Nubra Valley. Somehow, this colourful history makes the place much more fascinating in my eyes than the Alchi Monastery located amidst beautiful orchards of apricots and apples with the river Indus flowing below.....or even the Monastery at Lamayuru giving a fantastic view of the moonland.

 But Ladakh has much more to offer than these Gompas. As a trekker I fell in love with the idea of a cold desert while trekking in Spiti. The place is magical. It shows you the power and the serenity of nature in the same canvas. A fragile eco system- where winds can recite poems in your ears and can also change the look of the mountains. Where streams provide a much needed rest to the monotonous scenery and also play a role in flooding the habitations ...where mountains make you philosophical about life and also fill you with ambition to conquer them.

The place filled me up with so many contrasting emotions. While rafting in the river Indus ,I got a distinct sense of achievement , of riding the waves , of power of human race over the wild river . On another occasion, staring at the crystal clear blue water of Panong Lake , I could not help feeling spiritual  . What a beautiful reminder God left in the midst of high mountains of the sea which was there long time ago. A salty lake of 110 Km hidden from the eyes of civilisation ...where only the deserving can reach through a strenuous path . The place also made me realise the folly of human nature – who in the race of “owning “ this beauty end up ruining the peace of the region . Yes this is part of the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir and China is just few miles away . The Kargil region and the Siachin is unfortunately remembered more for the fights than for the beauty. The place if full of memorial stones for army officers and common villagers who died in these fights  . What a sad fate for a region so enchanting ! That  in fact was one sentiment I carried with me throughout the trip.

But I would be blind if I fail to see the bravery of the people here. Despite harsh weather and fragile topography , I do not remember one impolite or dishonest person. People were friendly , smiling and looked happy. Even while mentioning the cloud burst of last year which swept away hundreds of people, my car driver Dorjee smiled and added that “ We have re-built it now .It is over .” I am sure it is this never-say-die spirit that kept this place alive for centuries.   
I came back from Ladakh promising myself that I will go back there. Alone. For a travel with myself – sans all baggage , all programs, all maps  and all thoughts of daily life .

Friday, June 24, 2011

Country on Celebrity “Fast” track

It was with great interest that I read my hubby’s post about two much known fasts from Indian History. Fasting for protest- it is a curious subject. It has both funny and tragic sides to it. Yes, fasts are the “in” thing these days. But come to think of it – when were they out of fashion anyways? As it happens, we only notice the celebrity fasts while there may be many other more real fasts on protest happening around us, which go unnoticed. Let me recount- you fought with your spouse and the dinner went untouched that day. Next day, there is a high probability that the demands of the aggrieved side would be acceded to. . The teenagers too very often use the fast-way to get their demands from pocket money to piercing and from that “awesome” new dress to the latest gadget their best friend has purchased . Not only that, now a days the teenagers of both sexes are almost always fasting to remain in shape. Then we have workaholics like I know one Miss R, who would willingly skip a meal or two to complete the work at hand. That the work at hand can be postponed in favour of a lunch break would never occur to such selfless souls. They after all, consider even the most routine work as a step towards world peace and nation building.

Incidentally, I also have an aunt who wears her vegetarianism on her sleeve. I mean, even I am a very proud vegetarian, but this aunt would happily skip a meal in a party claiming to be on “fast” if she has slightest of doubts that the food may have been contaminated by non vegetarian food. I respect the sentiment and cannot count how many of her friends and colleagues have turned their party food “100% veg” to ensure that she doesn’t go empty stomach. So here it is. We as a nation believe in getting our way by threatening to go on fast. We do it with our spouses, with our parents and even our friends. It is , therefore, very understandable why Gandhi, Jatin Das, Jaiprakash Narain or very recently Anna Hazare thought of it as a political tool of protest .
But as I said earlier, only the celebrity fasts are noticed. A very well known Indian trait is that we love melodrama – not only in our politics and society, films and family life but also in our religion and work. Sans that we do not care who is eating and who is not. In most cases we do not even bother for the issue a protestor is trying to raise. We just follow the drama part. It was therefore, not hard to believe why one of the most heart wrenching fast was so easily forgotten by us. On 2 November 2010, Ms. Irom Sharmila Chanu, a Manipuri girl, completed ten years of hunger strike demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). That is a story of a human life wasted.

Last time I heard she was lying in a Government Hospital and was being force fed by nose. A torturous procedure, which keeps her alive for last many years . I understand that most of her vital organs have been wasted by this decade long hunger strike and it seems that our country has decided to let her go on her protest without even considering her demands. I won’t be surprised if most of the people who joined Anna Hazare or Baba Ramdev have not even heard of Sharmila. I can’t recall when any of our politicians tried to contact her. They are probably too busy in receiving the charlatan Babas on airports and bugging each other’s rooms. No filmstars visit her, no young professionals or activist groups try to listen what she is trying to say through her protest. In and out of jails for the past 11 years, Manipur's 'Iron Lady' Sharmila has a tube running down her nose as the government alternately force feeds her and incarcerates her for attempting to take her own life through her hunger strike. We have very conveniently decided to forget her as a Government liability - uncomfortable, but manageable nuisance. I do not judge whether one protest is greater than the other but can say with some confidence that in most cases people who support or oppose such protests have nothing much to do with the issues in question. They join sides on considerations like political parties, region, religion, vote bank, hero worship and publicity. In the long run that is the tragic side of these “fasts”. We remember the personalities, garland them, give them awards but forget the issues.

On second thoughts, there is one more side of celebrity fasts. I mean other than the funny and the tragic sides. It adds a new flavour to our daily I won’t be exaggerating, if I say that this Fast-track at least bring back viewers to TV, gives magazine stories to write about, geeks to form support forums online and ordinary men and women to gossip about . No wonder, everybody loves a celebrity fast!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hospitality Government Style

Few years back on this blog , I wrote a post about the Dak Bungalows. The post till date remains one of my most popular posts and received tremendous response. Many wrote to me through emails and many commented on it online. Best of all, Dr. Alan Shaw, from whose war memoir “Marching on to Laffan's Plain” I had quoted in the post , contacted me and we became friends ever since. About a month back, my dear Friend Dr. Shaw (94) died peacefully in Norfolk UK, after a long life lived to the full. In last four years through his gracious e-mails and letters , Dr. Shaw enlightened me about many things about India, the wars, and of the world 50 years before. Today when I sit to write another post of the same subject, I think of Dr. Shaw and his times and most humbly dedicate this post to my friend who reached out to me across the seas and overwhelmed me by his generosity.

Once again I got a taste of hospitality in the Government style . In my recent trip to Gujarat , I stayed in some of the well maintained circuit houses and felt terribly nostalgic about my childhood memories of Dak Bunglows. However since then, many things have changed. Government servants can now afford to stay at hotels and are also permitted to do so as per rules. Most find it very convenient and prefer them over Government maintained guest houses . Many departments have “outsourced” the guest houses by arrangements with private guest houses/hotels. The new guest houses in general lack the stately air of the old Dak bunglows. They are many times much more modern and facilities equipped and are preferred over the old austere guest houses and circuit houses. Unfortunately in many states now these old guest houses are not being maintained well. In Gujarat however, things have not changed much .

On the whole things have not changed much- as I already said in my previous post, time stops at these Dak Bunglows. But here and there, one does notice a change in courtesies of attendants, the taste (or the lack of it) in the furnishing of the rooms and the ignorance of the keepers about the historical importance of these places. Across the country, these circuit houses are located in some of the best locations and usually have an incomparable view from the rooms. But the “new” Villa circuit house of Porbandar surprised me with the lovely location is has. The rooms almost open on the beach. You come out of the rooms and you have Arabian Sea in its full glory ready to meet you on the steps. Watching a sunset from there was a treat for my senses. No wonder, these used to be the erstwhile ruler’s Guest rooms and are at a stone’s throw distance from the maharana’s palace ( now lying grossly neglected) . In fact in Saurashtra like many other parts of the country, these government Guest houses (specially circuit houses) are former properties of ex-royals. In some cases even their palaces. In Junagarh e..g. the circuit house still has its silver cutlery for special occasions and the wood carved furniture of old nawab .

View from the porbandar circuit house

This sprawling dak bunglow is a very typical compound and the sitting and dining area reminds you of the days gone by. In Dwarka by contrast, it was a plain and simple fare at circuit house. No grandeur of oil paintings or stuffed tigers in the common room. The garden was also bare . The one characteristic which marks all such places was however intact- the well informed attendant, who knew everything about the places to see, the best shop for buying things and best eatery to try. Aha, there is something in that age-old wisdom !

While staying in these places, I once again thought of other interesting guest houses I have stayed. There was a very well managed international guest house at Pantnagar University where the chef Daniel served most exotic desserts. Then there was one in Uttarakhand where I actually thought I saw a ghost. Another very bright and happy guest house at Kothi (HP) where we stayed several times on our ways to various treks . However, the weirdest place I remember staying was one in Darjeeling. I went there for some work and was forced to leave the taxi mid way. My staying arrangements were done in a guest house of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. But before I could locate the place it started raining. By the time I reached the place it was already dark and I was totally drenched. Whatever I could make out of the place at that time,it seems small but comfortable and welcoming. In the night however, I noticed some strange sounds –growls, screeches and grunts. Anyhow, I discounted these as my imagination and managed to sleep . It was only in the morning that I realized that the guest house was inside the Zoo. To top it all the animals in Darjeeling zoo are not caged but just restricted by slightly high walls. My heart skipped few beats. I could not understand why my people chose that place for me, till the morning I was about to leave and I opened the window of my room. After few days of overcast the sky was clear for the first time and I had the most majestic look of Kachanjungha in front of me . I just wowed the sight and gaped at snow-clad mountains with awe.
Junagarh Circuit house -the sitting (Baithak)

Another very peculiar memory of these circuit houses is the names of the rooms . In many places of course rooms are known only by numbers, in some older ones you may find rooms named after rivers , famous personalities of the region or even the trees in the campus. I remember staying in a guest houses where rooms were named after eminent leaders who stayed in them once upon a time.
Modern hotels may be much more comfortable but they cannot replace the charm of these old places. I do realize that they have become just a thing of past but then, we do go for heritage hotels too. These places are living testimony of the good old days of government on tour and may be still have some rational to be maintained with care and concern. I wonder how many in the government circles would agree ?

Days of King Krishna – and Remains of those days !

Unlike the West, in Indian thought time moves in cycles. Nothing goes forever- it goes, it re-emerges, re-constructs itself and then gets re-destroyed. While for the western world- we are born, we live, we die; in India we die only to be reborn. It’s not only humans but even cities, temples, trades, beliefs are reborn after they grow old to be used safely in a particular time . At some level it’s a very comforting thought and though like every other Indian I believed in it subconsciously, it was only last week that I saw one such re-birth of a city , at Krishna’s Dwarka .India conceives of four great epochs or ‘world ages’ of varying but enormous lengths: The Krita Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvarpara Yuga and the Kali Yuga. At the end of each yuga a cataclysm, known as pralaya, engulfs the globe in fire or flood. Then from the ruins of the former age, like the Phoenix emerging from the ashes, the new age begins. According to Vishnu Purana - Dwaraka was submerged by the sea right after the death of Lord Krishna.

“On the same day that Krishna departed from the earth the powerful dark-bodied Kali Age descended. The oceans rose and submerged the whole of Dwaraka."

Like many other metaphors of our scriptures, I believed this one too at only metaphoric level . But as I entered Dwarka city in Saurashtra, my beliefs got shaken. I am no longer sure that this was only a myth and not a poetic description of a historical event. Honestly, I never thought of Krishna as a historical figure. In fact even in our scriptures(e.g. Mahabharata) he is human and God at the same time – a description that makes one doubt his being real. In any case, Sri Krishna is a towering personality in Indian thought and it is difficult to separate the human aspect of his life from the divine in Krishna concept. He is a grand mystery and everyone has tried to understand him in his own way, according to his spiritual light or vision, devotion or human-ness of his life .Whether one thinks of him as an object of love or hate, one attains him. Yudhishthira attained him through friendship and Narada by devotion. Krishna is the embodiment of intellectual and spiritual glory. No other single idea has so much influenced the course of India's religion, philosophy, art and literature as the life and personality of Krishna. I have seen many people around me getting fascinated by Krishna in many different ( and contrasting) ways. But once in Dwarka I actually realized the truth in the words of Annie Besant that "He (Krishna) is so fundamentally the God, who is human in everything, who bends in human sympathy over the cradle of the babe, who sympathizes with the play of the youth, who is the friend of the lover, the blesser of the bridegroom and the bride, who smiles on the young mother when her first born lies in her arms, everywhere the God of love and human happiness; what wonder that his winsome grace has fascinated the hearts of men."

Similarly multifaceted is the city he supposedly found for his capital. One look at Dwarka- and all your doubts about its ancientness vanish in thin air. The only other city that gives me that kind of confidence is Varanasi. Called by whatever name, built by whoever, there is no doubt that this place was an ancient place of worship. It is said that after the Mahabharata, Krishna along with his yadava clan came here in search of a new Kingdom for himself. He decided to built a new city here and named the new city Dvaravati. A rather appropriate name- as the city is almost the first door of entry to the subcontinent from the Arabian Sea. The city finds mention in many classical texts. The one that comes to my mind is Sisupalavadha, by poet Magha where in sarga2; he describes the city of Dwaraka as-

"The yellow glitter of the golden fort of the city in the sea throwing yellow light all round looked as if the flames of vadavagni came out tearing asunder the sea."

In 1960s, the first archaeological excavations at Dwaraka were done by the Deccan College, Pune which revealed artefacts many centuries old. The second round of excavations in 1979 under S.R. Rao's direction found a distinct pottery which could be more than 3,000 years old. Based on the results of these excavations, the search for the sunken city in the Arabian Sea began in 1981. Scientists and archaeologists have continually worked on the site for 20 years. But the city is a manifestation of faith over science. Most people flocking the city are not in search of the archeological remain but the signs of King Krishna – which a devotees eyes cannot miss.

Dwarkadheesh temple is a landmark structure in the middle of the city. Parts of this temple belong of 12th century Ad and rest of it was built in 16th Century. Much like the dual-faceted personality of Krishna, the two main entrances of the temple are appropriately called "Moksha Dwara" (Door to Salvation) and "Swarga Dwara" (Gate to Heaven).Now the maintemple is surrounded by several other temples and shrines built subsequently by devotees .

But more than the main temple, I loved the temple of queen Rukmani which stands on the way to Bet- Dwaka. Intricately carved and grossly neglected, this old monument is has a strong presence and Character much like the queen to which it is dedicated. She claims the limelight in this region much before you enter Dwarka. In fact it is very curious that in this region, Radha , the childhood companion of SriKrishna is not present at all .Rukmani, the Patrani , takes her place instead .
On the way to dwarka in a little obscure village called Madhopur lies the place where Krishna supposedly married Rukmani. The temple standing there was pretty ordinary, till I laid my eyes on the old original temple, which was submerged in sea and re-surfaced in 1850s . The virgin beach of madhopur with a huge shiv-ling lies just below the temple. I was still mulling over the co-existence of Shiv and Krishna as reigning deities of this region when the evening prayers started in the temple. To my utter surprise , I found the recorded voice of classical maestro Pt.Jasraj doing the aarti in that small unknown village. India, as they say , contine to surprise you at every step!

Bet Dwarka- supposedly the place where King Krishna resided with his family, is a beautiful island. But the temple there is marred too much by commercialization, lines of small shops that even the lovely boatride to and fro could not make me like the place.

Even around Dwraka, there are numerous places establishing the humanness of Krishna. One such location was the Bhalka Teerth – the place where Krishna was killed by a Bheel . The place is few yards away from Somnath . On the banks of river Hiranya and marked by lines of coconut trees the place is picturesque and gives you the feel of divinity. It’s the only temple I know where Krishna is depicted in a lying position . The best part about myths and legends is the minuteness of the stories. Since Krishna left his earthly incarnation here , it was only fair to expect Sheshnaag who accompanied him on earth as Balram( his elder brother) to join him . So they also have a temple from where Balram went to pataal lok .

I did not like the Somnath temple- the big Government built, highly secured temple of India. But the location was exquisite. The remains of old temple lying behind the new one adds a sense of time to the whole complex. But the best was the pillar informing that from that point to the South Pole, the lightway is unbarred by any landmass. The pillar, which is said to exist since time immemorial left me stunned. Is this why they selected this location for the temple? Is this why despite numerous attacks, the temple was re-built again and again? Just outside the temple is another smaller temple built by Queen Ahilyabai Holkar. It is said that the ancient Shivling of somnath is in this temple.

I am not a religious person, so the temples and their myths, however fascinating did not affect me so much to ignore the fact that we are not keeping our heritage the way we should. We seem to be too engrossed in the immediate issues and gains that we ignore the historical and cultural aspects of this legacy. The encroachments and small shops fill the temple sites. The ASI, as usual has no control to preserve the ancient sites . The traces of scientific search of the old city are not to be seen anywhere and the business of the day goes on as usual.

I look back at the gushing waves of Arabian sea and console myself that well, it is just another side of the eternal cycle. After all, nothing goes forever.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Apno Amdavad

Ahmedabad is one city I was always curious about. Somehow, I always had very good vibes about the city. If you ask me to count reasons, there are many. Most of the top ones are ‘snakes’ (i.e. snacks) of course- available everywhere and consumed frequently – Khamman, Dhokla, Khandvi, Dabeli, Vada Pao, panipuri,  Bhel to name a few. To top them all , the city is truly the Ice cream capital of the country- Vadilal, Havmore, Dinshaw , Natural and not to miss AMUL . That itself raises it several notches in my opinion .

Then it is  a  vegetarian’s paradise….a foodie city , a city with culture, cuisine and  most importantly the pride.  Yes, the last one is important because in last few days I have come to realize that I cannot tolerate cynics  and in most parts of my country, cynicism is the prevalent disease. “kuch nahin ho sakta!!” is something I hate to hear. It was therefore, so heartening to find a place where people speak about present and future also with pride , hope and optimism. Where despite notoriety of communal politics- politics by and large is based on development initiatives . Where despite corruption, things move and get done .

There is something in the city that moves people. Make them react about it.  Sir Thomas Roe  described Ahmedabad as a "goodly city as large as London” and Emperor Jehangir sneered that Ahmedabad was actually Gardabad (The City of Dust). But one must also remember that the 17th century Muslim historian Muhammad Qasim Firishta said that it was on the whole, the handsomest city in  the Hindoostan.  According to legend, the main reason behind Ahmedabad coming into existence 600 years ago is a love story involving Ahmad Shah, the city's founder. Teja, the gorgeous daughter of Asha Bhil who became queen of Ahmad Shah, wanted to remain close to her parents' home, and thus soon after marrying her, the sultan again came to Ahmedabad to be with his beloved . Camping on the banks of Sabarmati, he was surprised to see some rabbits which were being chased by his hounds, turned around in defence and confronting their attackers. Sultan's spiritual advisor explained that it was the character of the land that it inspired courage to timid rabbits and advised the Sultan that the site would be auspicious for his new capital. And this is how   the Sultan, who had been looking for a place to build his new capital, decided to locate it in what was then a forested area close to the river bank . He called it Ahmedabad. The incident is popularly described in a one liner: "Jab kutte pe sassa aaya, tab Badshah ne shaher basaya". When the hare chased the dog, the emperor built the city.  The city however remembers its beloved old man much more than that empress . Gandhi is a trademark in the city and its newly designed cousin Gandhi-nagar . The city, however  seems to be in a dilemma to  decide what to do with this trademark. While in the heart of it- every Guajarati is a very simple, God fearing  person  – but in real  materialistic world the community has walked far ahead. The dichotomy is very visible in their humble appearance and yet massive wealth , their love for roadside snacks and their swanky malls, their entrepreneurship and their faith in God – their ability to go ahead and their ability to cheat in taxes  . Very understandably, the city dreams to be the next Manhattten  or Shanghai.

M.K. Gandhi-the old man who claimed that his life is his lesson- continues to be the biggest hero in this city . I , however , visited his  sabarmati ashram in most unsuitable company. Cynical bureaucrats and Rusted engineers could hardly appreciate the simplicity and beauty of the place . They posed and clicked pictures , collected brochure and walked away saying that the place was “ nothing much” . For them the place was not even a mediocre picnic place . For me it was an oasis of peace amidst the bustling city . A place where time is frozen since Bapu left it . Except for the river front- which was very ill kept, I loved the serenity of the place . The house where he lived for years was so bare, so austere that it is difficult not to be moved by it . Unfortunately he continues to be judged by his politics. And not always very kindly.
            While roaming around the campus of IIM- the ace business school of the country , I think of Gandhi, of Ahmedshah and also the Scientist founder of this place- Vikram Sarabhai. Space Research to snacks- Ahmedabad is indeed a city of multiple colours.  

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Pause

Louis MacNeice was an irish poet, a contemporary of W.H. Auden . I reproduce a poem written by him here as it gives me strength on those desparate moments when I feel that a cyclone of "life" is sucking me in its vortex.It helps me in realising that at the other side of all the despair, frustration and failures remains our only chance to redeem ourselves, to purify ourselves and to cleanse ourselves of our weaknesses. And we live this life with all our disappointments and despair, yet not lose our innate faith on ourselves. Every misfortune only makes us stronger, every grief steels our heart ever more and every battle we lose makes us more determined.
     The cynic would say that in the course of our journey, we only move from one frustration to another, from one despair to another, from one pain to another, from one sorrow to another, from one disappointment to another, from one hopelessness to another. Only for some fleeting moments, we are allowed to be happy – “Happiness” as Thomas Hardy said, after all “is an occasional episode in the general drama of pain”. But that does not mean that we take our frustrations and despair and disappointments for granted and resign ourselves to our fate, knowing fully well that
“Alike for those who for today prepare,
 and for those who after a tomorrow stare
A Muezzim cries from the tower of darkness
 Fools, your reward is neither here nor there.”

No, the strength and determination are certainly not for any imaginary victory over an imaginary foe, not even against ourselves. It is only to realise that despite everything, just to be living is an wonderful experience. So here I begin once again, heartbroken after one more disappointment...full of hope for the next assignment ; praying that they do not turn me into a stone....ever.


" I am not yet born; O hear me.

Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.
Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.

Otherwise kill me."