Monday, January 31, 2011

Dhobi Ghat : Towards a Stain free world

I am sure if there was a Padma Shri or Oscar for washing clothes, my family would have had two. The two most important men of my life- my father and my husband , enjoyed this seemingly routine activity to no end. I must confess that though I do consider washing clothes , a very hygienic and important activity of life, I could never bring myself to share their love for it. While other families fight over the remote control of TV , in my house fights are on the use of washing machine . Hubby thinks , I can never match his expertise and his skills in washing clothes carefully. I accede to this claim. Both of us coming from the middle class families with the passion for Do-it –yourself , always saw our parents investing time in washing and ironing clothes . Of course , the quintessential Dhobi was just a call away for emergencies.

There is definitely a lot of fun in washing clothes- till of course you are forced to do it frequently . Talking about the art in it, I guess there is much more than what meets the eye. While in the good old days , detergent was the only chemical to be tested on fabrics- we always had home remedies to keep the stains away. My mother would say – use lime or vinegar . Her mother would add soak the dark colours in salt waters first . My father even had standards on hanging the clothes to dry. My sister has evolved her whims for bleaching and starching . Clearly, it runs in the family. And to my luck, I found an equal washing-clothes-enthusiast as my husband .

Earlier , Sundays and holidays were great laundry days . Washing bucketful of clothes – sorting them,  soaking them in detergent , special treatmenst for cuffs and collars , hanging some in shades, others in sun and a lot many other rituals were routine for every family around us .  The lines of clothes hanging in each courtyard  were signs of a sunday well spent . There was something very puritan, very innocent about those laundry days . Of course, those were the days of hand washing and no-driers. Things have changed since then, besides the range of specialized detergents and stain removers , we also have fabric conditioners and whiterners . I wonder how do people in some develop country live without drying their clothes in sun . I am told in many places there are laws against it .They definitely miss out that fresh, crisp touch of freshly washed and dried clothes. Aha , what a feel it is .
Did you ever notice how much this mundane looking activity catches the eye of artists in every age. There are almost equal number of photographs and oil paintings of people washing clothes at streams and ghats of India as there are of women bathing . While one can guess the interest of the artists in the latter , the former beats my imagination. But there must be something or why the heck we have almost half the TV ads on detergents and the other half on shampoos . I ,being a vintage ad collector, can tell this with authority that this has been always like that . If you don’t believe my saying so, come on, do a small test yourself . Try to remember you favorite taglines from your childhood print/TV ads . Nine out of ten, you are either remembering Lalitaji telling the wisdom in buying surf or you are saying “ उसकी साड़ी मेरी साड़ी से सफ़ेद कैसे?( super Rin क़ी चमकार  )” . Or may be you are thinking of the little girl in poster asking a pedestrian- “सुनो सुनो ओ बाबूजी कहाँ चले , कपडे क्योँ हैं मैले धुले ?” or is it “ Nirma- promising you “दूध सी धुलाई ” . Now try to think of some recent ads – there is still a high probability that you are thinking of some or the other washing powder/ detergent cake / washing machine ad . Not only this, washing clothes has also been looked at very philosophically, very symbolically.

Given the amount of learning this activity involves , we all have our washing mis-adventures . Even my better half, who claims to be such an authority on the subject , finally conceded that long back in his “learning” days , he spoiled his most expensive set of pants after soaking them overnight . Talking of that, I can’t resist telling the most amusing washing mis-adventure I know. This is from my batchmate who apparently never got a chance to wash his own clothes thanks to his dotting mummy. Now , in the cold days of shimla , his only resource for this work was our dear dhobi. This dhobi once disappeared for many days together . Rest of us continued or started doing our own laundry and were not that affected by dhobi’s disappearance . Someone ( my guess- his lady-love) also advised him to do his laundry himself. Bit unsure about how to do it, our dear novice washerman selected the wash room in one corner of the hostel which no one used . In a bucket he soaked 5-6 clothes for “just 30 minutes” after which he planned to wash them . As you can guess he forgot. And he forgot it for days . It was only after 3-4 days when someone passing from that washroom sniffed a rotten smell and called the cleaners thinking it must be a dead rat , that his soaked clothes were discovered. Of course, the clothes were gone by that time . While all of us teased him to no end, consoling him my roommate told him that she had once soaked her mom’s expensive silk saree in normal detergent and got a tight slap thanks to it. I too have some sob stories of getting my sarees spoiled by dhobis of different places but by and large, it has not been very bad for me. Of course, my husband will never let me forget how I mixed his new jaipuri kurta ( a bright yellow one) with while clothes in washing machine and you can guess the result.

So I do not doubt the skill and expertise of all the dhobis around me. I look upto them with so much respect and admiration .I am aware that in India washing your husband’s shirt is considered a very symbolic gesture of both love and drudgery ( depending upon who you are – a traditionalist or a feminist !) . I am also acutely aware that behind every working couple , there is a huge pile of laundry waiting to be done . I do not get to do that anyways . I read in an article that once Cherie Blair was asked by a journalist that Who wears pants in her house ? She coolly replied –“ Of course it is Tony (Blair) , and he is the one who washes and irons them too .” Believe me , I can empathize .

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Enchanting Chants

I was surprised when one morning I found myself humming an old vedic chant. I have not performed a havan for months now..neither have I participated in one. In any case, I am not a religious person to suddenly start chanting vedic mantras. But I wanted to. In fact I went ahead and searched for Arya Samaj havan video clips on You Tube and played them on my computer. Those familiar sounds of my childhood had something very soothing about them. Whole day I was unconsciously repeating the havan mantras in my mind .

I was born in an Arya Samaj family. On every occasion- festival, birthday, anniversary, the family used to perform a simple havan. As far as I remember, by the time I was six or seven, I knew all the mantras, without knowing the meaning of course. Though later on I learnt the meaning as well but I just liked the sound. For me the best sounds on a troubled moment is the way my father used to recite them loudly. These were of course not the only chants I knew.

One good thing about going to a missionary school is that they change something in you forever. Some of the hymns and chants are part of the memories too. Most favorite prayer of my childhood- Ave Maria, whether performed in our school chapel or by Luciano Pavoratti, has an immediate effect on me. I never bothered to know the meaning – not even now. I just like the rhythm, the ups and downs of voices singing it together – some with deep faith and others (like me) just mechanically. All getting affected by it nevertheless. These sounds are so powerful, so moving and at some level, very comforting. Somehow, they belong to a world where parents, teachers and elders were in control of things- where life was protected. I tried hard to remember who taught me Hanuman Chalisa. It must be one of the servants or may be some family friends. This beautiful chant also contains a lot of power for me. Somehow, it got into my mind that in case of any fear, crisis or danger, I should recite this. Though I can’t remember who gave this wisdom to me but I still do that . I was mentally chanting it when I travelled alone for the first time, when I feared a really bad result….even when I went to collect my father’s medical tests. I do not believe things turned out any different because of it. But I felt stronger and more capable of dealing with them. That is the power of chants .

Come to think of it, it can be anything. It need not be religious too. Any mantra, any poem, any words that give you strength or peace just by repeated recitations. Have you ever wondered why these chants are so powerful? Why they have such calming effect on us? Why almost all established religions of the world believe in them? I can think of Vedic mantras, Buddhist chants, Gregarion chants, Bahai chants and even African chants. Chanting of psalms and prayers is an essential part of most religious services - be it Hindu or Catholic. In all cultures rituals like marriage, birth and death involve group chanting. Even the new age gurus accept the power of positive affirmation. The power to tell your mind repeatedly what you want it to believe. They say if you can visualize something as if it’s true, it happens. Even in the battles they had chants and war cries. And this remains a tradition of wars and battles from ancient times till date. In contrast to the calming effect of the religious or spiritual chnats, battle cries aim to invoke patriotic sentiment. Their purpose is a combination of arousing aggression and esprit de corps on one's own side and causing intimidation on the hostile side. And they work. Team sports too believe in the power of these chants. Teams and their supporters have their own chants. Protesters too use these chants to express solidarity for a cause. Even some of the punk bands use the chants to involve their audiences. Isn’t it amazing how sounds have so many different effects on us? Sometimes bestowing power and strength and sometimes pouring divine bliss on us. Sometimes making us strong against an enemy and sometimes making us control our anger .
May be we never notice it but even in our daily life we unconsciously use many of these rhythmic sounds. Can you remember the familiar sound of “Haiyya ho” which is used to carry or move heavy objects? In literature too we come across such songs/sounds used for a particular occasion/by a particular group of people. I can think of the palanquin bearers using a rhythmic “ hun huna” and then there are sounds to which even the birds respond. Coming from a culture where the teaching of almost everything was passed on by recitation and oral tradition - the power of spoken word is not difficult for us to understand. If in our eastern classical tradition we have our trust in healing powers of chants, the western world too looks at this tradition as much more than a musical genre .

I had a French teacher who used to listen chaupaiyya of Ramcharitmanas every morning with much devotion. I once asked her what is in this sing song style of recitation that she likes. She told me that it takes her in to a different world. A world of bliss and glory. That -I think is the beauty of words well spoken. Even if you do not know the meaning, just the faith is enough to take you where you want it to be. Enchanting indeed!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Nostalgia, Cynicism and the Republic Day

I read somewhere that Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect! We all find the past perfect – at least that is how we like to filter our memories. We idealize past even more when we grapple with the uncertainty of the future. Therefore, it was not unusual that when I sat down to write about the Republic Day, the first images that came to my mind are of my childhood . The school function, distribution of ladoos and later on the craze of watching Republic Day parade on TV. I always found the sound of our national anthem playing and people (including the President) watching the national flag with pride very emotional. I still choke at times when the band plays “Jai jai jai, jai he…!” . Then I thought of the last Republic Day. Living in a government colony makes it easy for us government servants to attend a flag hoisting function. In my campus, it is done with a lot of pomp and show as it is an international institute where we have to showcase our national functions in front of foreigners. I found to my utter shock that many of my contemporaries were not so sure about the wordings of the national anthem. One even suggested jokingly if we can sing the A.R.Rahman version of “Jai ho!” Thanks to the schools, the children took the lead in singing. I came back with a bad taste in mouth.
I avoid being cynical about the world around me. So much so, I often ignore the pessimistic facts and sights. But it is difficult to think about the state of affairs in our republic without a tinge of sadness when I find Binayak Sen facing life imprisonment and CBI failing to file a charge sheet in three months after CWG scam. We indeed live in an incredible country. Contradictions that make one shiver with fear. Divisions that defy any logic, cruelity that surpasses mythical devils and the political milieu, which defines all the ills of society. For some inspiration, I go back to the voice of one frail man who took our country out of similar (if not worse) hopelessness about a century back. Gandhi once wrote about Seven social sins: politics without principles, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, and worship without meaning. Interestingly we have all the seven present before us – We feel them every day, deal with them every day but do not fight back to come out of them . Mostly, I too think that it is beyond one individual to fight back these ills. Where is that small body of people with unquenchable faith in its mission to alter the course of history, which Gandhi talked about? But if I believe in Gandhi, who talked about the only one tormentor- the quiet voice of his own conscience, I think I know the solution as well.

Think about it. Why do we deserve fair play and life without exploitation? Do we give that back to those around us. People who break the rules to have their way, bribe to get undue advantage, beat their wives and do not do their own duties faithfully- why do we think we should get honest government, fair treatment, no bullying and correct dues. How many times people ask me to put in a word, to twist the rules so that they can get their child admitted to a school, get that license bit early or get the income tax penalty waived off. We have almost come to believe that it is fair. Haven’t we? Many of us even justify this posing as helpness victims of a corrupt state ...but if you look around there is a difficult but honest way always there...well almost always. It's just that our faith is following the honest way is so badly shaken that we do not even want to give it a try. I cannot count on how many occasions I fought with an urge to break a traffic rule, to show my Identity card and get a special treatment, to unduly bend a system for my vanity, my greed and sometimes for even less…to just show off . When I think of it, I do not know how to blame the government, the politics, the businessmen and everybody for doing the same – just at a different level. Look around ...we need not even try hard , we have become a country of crooks so obiviously apaprently . We gladly accept that we break rules, we short circuit systems, we bribe the policeman who cought us speeding and then we talk big about other people's similar dishonesty. I do not say that the world will treat you fine if you follow the right path ....but then, if charity starts at does honesty and fairplay.When I ask myself, if I have been fair to those who are powerless before answer is not an undounted YES. Who am I then to pick up stone on others?

So what do I intend to do this Republic Day? The options are:

1. Feel disgusted at the list of celebrities getting the Padma Award , and getting caught in one scam or the other soon afterwards

2. Getting soaked in nostalgia of the good old days . Days which I will cynically conclude are gone forever.

3. Being cynic that nothing will ever change and making excuses of helplessness to go unfair myself

4. To be what I should be, a moral, ethical , fair human being . One who does her duties honestly, who calls for positive change in the system by following the rules, by being true and fair herself first .
The frail voice of my conscience tells me that the correct answer is 4. So, why to think harder- Lock kiya Jay?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Death of Originality and the CPF

 CPF- that is Cut( or copy) paste and forward. I am sure you know about this . I am also sure that like me you use it almost every day . Calling it a miracle would be an understatement. Whoever first thought of this feature of word processing was a big plagiarist …or may be he/she was just lazy . It’s a big convenience and a great tool to edit . But today it has turn into a livelihood provider for many, ice breaker for others and even popularity tool for some . Tell me how many forwarding mails/ sms you get everyday ? Have you ever found yourself connecting to a friend but without anything in particular to say…just send a couple of forward-mails . Do you want to impress someone- just do a wiki and some googling on anything under the sun and write a brilliant piece on it. Do you have to submit a paper by tomorrow morning and you are suffering from a creative block? Never mind , there are millions others who have uploaded readymade solutions for you to CPF. It does sound magical . But how many times we face what can be called a cut-paste faux pas . I am sure we all know some of those too .

This 1st January I woke up with a sms from an old friend B . A very poetic message wishing me a happy new year , I was marveling the words till I reach the end where I found “….from X” . I was puzzled for a second…who is this X . Right then I got another message from my friend B …who again wished me a happy new year and very coolly added “ this time from his side” . Apparently he just forwarded a nice message without editing the last part. My sister did something even worse. She had her signature as her name which gets added at the end of each message . So on one festival , all my aunts and uncles, grandfather and relatives received message – a real good one “from XYZ “ followed by my sister’s name. The faux pas created a mini scandal in the family for a day as everybody wondered who is this XYZ with whom she is wishing everybody . But then, these are just very innocent goof ups . Worth a laugh of course, but nothing serious.

Let me tell you a recent example where the magical CPF( cut paste and forward ) gave me a rare laugh during an otherwise serious workday . I was looking into an expensive report given by an international consultant for a project. This was one of those colourful looking documents which everyone admires (mostly for its graphs and printing ) but no one reads. But as an auditor, it was my job to read the bulky report, I somehow continued reading it beyond the preface. Suddenly it appeared that things were not adding up. The report seems logical but in between there were unrelated words. The report was about hygiene and food. So while it had Delhi featuring in several places , it was talking of organizations which are nowhere here in India. There was mention of City and borough government and also of Dal makhani . I gave it another careful reading and I found the key. It was a classic CPF from a foreign report. Not only that , the author replaced the key words e.g. name of organization with the Indian counterpart through find- replace ( another magic mantra of word processing ) . The result was hilarious. But as it happens in government, no one ever read that document and everybody was happy. When I narrated this story to a colleague, he was not surprised. He told me that her brother cleared most of her strategy papers, dissertations and presentations through CPF. My dear brother in law exclaims that in his field (software and banking) it happens all the time . Oh yes, I should have known better.
Internet resources have made plagiarism really easy. While in earlier days we used to write down our favorite quotes and poems to remember them at the right moment , today we do a search and in a click we have opinions, thoughts, reactions and even appeals ready for us. The more ethical ones change a word or two and if possible use liberally from more than one source . The real masters copy it as it is and make it their own.

For those of you who thought despite everything else around us changing, we bureaucrats are still the same, here is some news . In Mussoorie academy we had some very prestigious essay competitions . One of these was sponsored by Indian Army . In the year when I was doing the foundation course, the evaluation committee found it difficult to select the shortlisted entry as many of the entries were very similar. Thanks to internet resources and the magical CPF , many of us came up with “very similar” thoughts . Training courses are another example of changing times. On how many occasions I found myself looking at an old presentation being repeated by multiple speakers with their name. We even had one speaker who stole the jokes and cartoons as well from the presentation available on internet and passed it off as his own experience . In support of his obivious CPF , one such speaker once quoted john Milton who said “ Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research.”

There is an old saying that whatever you throw at the world it comes back to you. Believe it or not, this is aptly applicable on the CPF as well. I have received back my own forwards a couple of times and on files I often find my own notes copied and presented with a different formatting and font. People have very differing views on this . Some consider it unethical others take it in their stride. One even told me that it is just quotation without inverted commas . He argued that this is in a way, a praise of your draft – a compliment that you expressed it so well that there was nothing to do more. Someone recently gave me a very interesting phrase for it. He said it is not plagiarism , it is creative re-producing . I was impressed for a second and then a doubt occurred in my mind whether this phrase is orginal or well…taken from somewhere .