Saturday, April 29, 2006

Adventure on a pleasant and normal Bombay evening

It’s such a normal pleasant evening by the sea. Mom, Dad and I slouch back on our deck chairs on the balcony as we sip our sundowners. Dad has poured himself a whisky, I’m having a feni and soda and my mother is enjoying a local red wine. Red wine, she claims, is good for her asthma and her heart.

So we’re talking about this and that when I see a shadowy form flit across the tiled floor. It scurries in a zig zag fashion towards me and before I know it my legs are in the air to avoid the wretched creature. Long before I know what the hell it is my brain has informed me it’s a roach and has done its usual hysterical act. Luckily the roach which seems just as hysterical has zig zagged faster than Michael Schuhmacher towards my mother who is so surprised at the thing brushing past her feet that she goes “Eeeeek!” And she prizes herself on being so calm and nonchalant in the presence of cockroaches and laughs about me being the scaredy puss!

So anyway Roachboy, intent on saving his own life takes off for some dark corner where he presumably gets lost and we forget about him and get back to chatting about what’s been happening generally, about the traffic problem and about Mahajan’s state of health and other stuff, when my mother picks up her glass, inspects it, smells it, gets up casually and goes into the drawing room and looks into her glass carefully again, by the bright light indoors.

“What?” I ask her and my worst fears are confirmed.

“Cockroach,” she says – and I must say she is very calm and tranquil as she breaks this news to me. “That darned insect must have fallen into my glass.”

I am flabbergasted. When?! How! We were all there and none of saw anything! Anyway it’s happened and there’s nothing to be done about it except to pour out the remaining wine, rinse out the glass and pour in some fresh wine. “I smelled something funny,” Mother says. “It didn’t smell like wine any more and I had a strong suspicion the cockroach must have tumbled in. It’s happened once before. Cockroaches like red wine too, apparently.”

I ask her, “Did you drink any of the wine after the creature fell in?” And mom shrugs. In her usual pragmatic manner she says, “I don’t know. But I’m glad it was one of the cheaper Indian wines. Imagine how much worse it would have felt to have to toss out a glass of expensive, imported Shiraz or something else!”

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Throw Away Culture

Two days back a man in Bombay, shot his brother. Not to say that this is a common event but it is not the first time in the world that such a thing has happened either. If the man had been some ordinary fellow the news item would have been sandwiched between umpteen other bits of news somewhere between the middle and back pages of the papers. But the bloke who fired the pistol in this case, happened to be Pravin Mahajan, an unsuccessful businessman constantly in need of money, and the brother he shot happened to be Pramod Mahajan, the BJP general secretary, whom many have been touting as “India’s future prime minister.”

Brothers have been known to get into a foul enough mood to occasionally kill each other. The Biblical story about Cain and Abel is not just some fairy tale. In this case younger bro was pissed off with older bro because older bro had refused to support him through his business flops any longer. He refused to even meet him without an appointment. So, humiliated and furious, the younger brother just walks into the older brother’s flat one morning and fires four bullets into his non-cooperating sibling’s body – an act which now has the older brother fighting for his life in a city hospital. What actually threw me was the statement that Pravin Mahajan subsequently made to the police, to explain his act. “He was not useful to me any more so I shot him,” he is reported to have said.

In a way this attitude about sums up our throw away culture. We are constantly throwing away everything from used batteries to plastic bags to plastic syringes. I suppose it is a logical development to extend this “throw away” attitude to human beings as well, who have ceased to serve a purpose in our lives. What Pramod M’s younger brother did to him of course as many people know, is what Pramod M (the victim in this story) is himself alleged to have done a few years ago, to a New Delhi journalist supposed to be carrying his child. But with a true flair for recovery he seemed to bounce back to his political career unscathed by having been named as prime suspect in the Shivani Bhatnagar murder case.

I am not trying to get moralistic here or to say in the least, that Mr. Mahajan had it coming or anything remotely like that. Nor that he deserves to have been shot at by his brother. One crime hardly justifies another. All I am saying is that there is something very screwed up about the times we live in. Because in a throw away culture, you never know who will want to throw you out next, because you have ceased to contribute anything to their lives. The psychiatrist who has examined the culprit - and the police too, maintain on the basis of psychological tests which were carried out, that the guilty man is mentally sound although Pravin M’s wife and lawyer insist that he has been depressed and mentally unstable for a while.

I would tend to go along with the wife's opinion because anybody who can shoot another human being – brother or stranger – without remorse, has to have something wrong with him. In this case I tend to think that there is something very wrong with the tests which have been carried out on the trigger happy man which say he is actually, mentally sound. It seems to me that here, it is the psychiatrists who believe in such tests, who are mentally unsound. Because it shows how superficial their examination is, and the fact that nobody wants to look even a bit under the surface for the true cause of violence. And when members of society whom ordinary people look to for understanding, themselves turn out to have such a superficial understanding of who is sick or not, then well, it is somewhat scary, I guess!

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Two causes for Optimism

Two things I read in yesterday’s papers made me feel quite optimistic, generally. One was on the personal front, the other on the public. What made me personally happy was a photo of Laura Bush in Japan, in the middle of a Japanese tea party. I have always felt intrigued about this custom and at the same time a bit disappointed because it involves being togged up in a kimono and squatting on the floor, and I can’t picture myself doing either. But Laura Bush was wearing an off white three piece suit and was sitting at a table with her mother next to her. She was pouring tea into a cup watched by a smiling, bowing Geisha girl. (Do they call them just Geisha’s or “Geisha Girls”? At least sometimes I like to sound politically correct). Laura’s mother was also smiling affably in the photo.

So first of all I thought, the Japanese tea party is now within my reach as well. If Laura Bush can drink Japanese tea in her off white suit, I can pour out the tea and drink it wearing my blue jeans. I can even take my mother along to Japan and she can wear her blue jeans or a pair of bright blue peddle pushers, which she is rather attached to and which she wears every second day when she goes for a walk. We can both sit and pour out tea in a genteel fashion with some nice looking Geishas smiling over us and I can at last satisfy my desire to participate in this age old meditative ceremony. Then I will get back to my group in Bombay and introduce them to the tea drinking ritual, though most of them will probably only want to drink chai, which might not be all that meditative as far as drinks go.


The second piece of news which made me happy and has more consequence for society is the fact that 74 per cent of the readers in DNA’s poll on the Narmada dam, said they support the NBA (the anti dam group) and are against the monstrous dam being constructed on the Narmada river. This comes as a real surprise just when one thought nobody cared.

Not that anything is likely to come out of anybody’s feelings, because the government is going ahead with plans to raise the height of the construction and thousands of tribal people living on the banks of the river will be done out of their homes. Now, following Medha Patkar’s twenty day fast the government says they will at least help to resettle them in an alternate place (the last time they made an effort, the affected villagers were all hustled off to a vast tract of barren land where nothing could grow).

The bad news is that the government is just not able to see the fact, that the vast expense, the destruction of tribal land and harassment of thousands of villagers is to provide only a few select areas with electricity – with no regard for the consequences of the environmental damage that most huge dams cause. But at least people are waking up, they are demonstrating their concern for the displaced, they are showing that they do have a sense of what is right and wrong. And that feels good.

Group wesbite:

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Dangers of a Kiss

What has apparently shaken up Delhi recently, is not the fact that there is so much violence and factionalism in the country, nor that a large number of people still go to bed hungry every night, or that women get such a raw deal in life. No Sir. What is shaking up the city is the fact that Farhad Suri, the guy who was elected Mayor of Delhi two or three days back was PUBLICLY KISSED by his wife when she got the news. Ahem.

The papers quote a long list of notables who have condemned this barbaric act of passion. She should not have done it. He should not have allowed it. Public figures should behave themselves. Kissing is a private act, not meant for public consumption. Etc. etc. And boy do they all sound like self righteous prigs. But that is India. The holier than thou attitude is one of our major distinctions. I am my brother’s keeper and I am going to decide what he does, what he says and what he should think.

Let me quote the views of BJP councillor Subhash Arya on the subject. “ Suri has created history,” says Arya. “Never before has such a scene been seen before. Sitting on the Mayor’s chair or dais this is unacceptable. He should have stepped away from the dais and then what the couple did is their personal life. It (kissing) is not a part of our tradition and cannot be tolerated.”

This is very evident. A kiss has to do with love and when I see what we Indians do to each other in the name of God and religion it seems to me that it is true, love is not really a part of our tradition. Duty is, or at least the idea of it. But love? Love is not to be tolerated. (Of course India is not the only place in the world where people are intolerant and smug, so let's burst some crackers at this point, in celebration).

If you want to really show someone you love them you should first make sure that nobody is around to see you because to exhibit love openly is a sign of disrespect for the person watching you. Love is something to be ashamed of. No wonder the majority of us are so screwed up! The lucky ones are the people who at least know they are screwed up and are trying to get the knots in their minds and lives unravelled, in whichever way they find best. The not so lucky ones are those who believe they are always right. I would not want to be one of them if you paid me a million bucks and promised me a free flight to the moon. Come to think of it, maybe that is where the Mr. and Mrs Know It Alls of the world belong.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Train Rides in India

It was ages since I’d stepped into a train in India. The last time had been over five years ago, when Christoph had come down from Switzerland and the gang had decided to organize a workshop in Goa. That time we had opted for the overnight train from Mumbai to Madgaon which was supposed to reach Goa (Madgaon) by 11 AM. Come 11 AM however, we were nowhere vaguely near Goa. Midday we were still hoping to make it at not too late an hour. We were chugging away at a rather leisurely pace when at around half past one in the afternoon just as we were beginning to get tired and hungry and ready to stuff just about anything into our stomachs, (there was NO food in sight on this particular train) we came to a grinding halt. A gang of protestors waving red flags were prancing around the tracks refusing to let us pass “until the government promised to build them a station at the point where they were holding us up.”

We were running out of food, we were running out of water and also out of patience by then. Not that it made any difference. We were held up for over two hours, the only person enjoying it all being Christoph who darted here and there, taking photographs of the protesting bunch from as many angles as he could. When we pulled into Madgaon it was raining, it was becoming dark, we had an hour to go before reaching our final destination by road and I swore I would never again take any train to anywhere in India.

Now, with memories of the discomfort well behind me and Sudha informing me about this “fast train” to Goa (fast means covering 600 kilometres in something like 9 hours), as well as tickets for a throwaway price I decided to go for it.

So on the appointed day we stumble out of bed at the crack of dawn (Sudha has decided to spend the night at our place) and by 5 am, having haggled with the coolie who helped us carry our luggage, we are comfortably ensconced in our seats, Sudha and I across the aisle from each other. Within a few minutes the two seats next to mine are taken by a very amiable couple with a grinning baby who specializes in firmly clutching people’s hair (she tried to clutch mine and also to grab my spectacles). Mom and Dad cheerfully and amiably occupy three quarters of the space on the row of seats leaving me a narrow bit of seat to squeeze my ass into, as we chug out of the station. If there was any hint of sleep left, the din of hawkers selling chai, coffee, snacks, cold drinks and “garam garam tomato soup - pio pio” has me wide eyed in no time.

At the very first stop about twenty minutes or half an hour later, an ill tempered man followed by his fat wife stomps his way into the compartment, stops in front of me, checks the tickets in his hand and proceeds to bark at the couple with the baby. Apparently the seats they are occupying belong to him and his wife. So off goes the poor couple with the baby, after gathering their belongings, their hajaar potlis and baskets and water bottles and baby. Barking Dog, having settled down in his rightful seat attempts to smile at me (I don’t think he is actually capable of smiling – it is more like his lips are struggling to move upwards in an effort to appear friendly) while his wife Fatty, fishes out a bagful of red and white pearly beads from her pouch and a reel of nylon thread on which to string them, though shortly after beginning to work on her fancy thingummy she falls soundly asleep.

Sudha sitting across the aisle has a woman sitting next to her who is part of a pilgrimage tour. Various members of this group take turns sitting at the window, stumbling over Sudha’s feet in the process and then promptly falling fast asleep. Watching all the sleeping souls around us Sudha and I start to drift off too, heads lolling against the backrest waking up every now and again to shouts of “Garam Samosa! Hot Soup!” etc.

When we pull into Madgaon and I try getting off the train I am almost swept aside by an army of passengers who want to board it. But even as I goggle at them and start flapping my hands in a futile attempt to ward them off, an elderly gentleman yells at the hooligans to step aside, grabs me by the hand and leads me to safety. When I thank him he smiles. “You’re welcome.” Thank god for small mercies!!! It hasn’t been half as bad as I expected and when it is time to return to Bombay a week later not only am I ready to weather another nine hours on the tracks but am on the way to becoming a fan of the Indian railways.

Group website:

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Walking on Indian Roads

Last night I got the feeling I would like to respond to what Sudha said in the last post on this blog, about the time we spent together in Goa and all that she felt while walking down the village roads there, with me. It is true, walking around in India is a big headache for me and generally for people with any kind of disability. But I have to say that the conditions in India make one feel more handicapped than one really is. I was telling Sudha for instance, that in the west I am far more mobile and independent than I am able to be here. The roads are smoother, the pavements are almost level with the road and not five feet above the ground requiring major acrobatics to climb up. The buses are manned by drivers who keep a watch on passengers boarding or gettinf off the bus. Buses do not take off while one of your feet is still dangling in mid air and while you’re liable to fall off. Trains are very accessible (except maybe for the Paris rush hour which can be BAD!).

The two years I spent abroad as a young adult, going where I pleased, entirely on my own, were therefore among the most fulfilling in my life … and yet I chose to return to this chaotic country with its incomprehensible ways. Maybe because all said and done, this is where I “belong”. This is where I feel most at home. Because something in the atmosphere strikes a chord in me. Quite simply, broken pavements notwithstanding, I have started acknowledging the fact that I like living here!

Still, it would be so nice if India could make a bit more of an effort to cater to people who are physically disadvantaged, not to mention mentally disadvantaged or lacking in other respects. This darker side to our attitudes and to our mentality is also a reality. I have so often seen deaf people get laughed at because those with normal hearing find the way they talk, hilarious. The physically handicapped are ignored when streets and housing or public spaces are planned. The mentally retarded … well the less said about society’s reaction to this group of people the better. The blind…they are pitied as much as they are cheated when shop keepers/taxi drivers and others feel they can get away with it. This is what I learnt from my blind friend Venky, who in spite of everything has managed to travel all over the world on his own - from Xanadu to Zurich or London.

Oh well. I continue to grumble but not as viciously as I used to. Things take time. It will take time for us to catch up with the west in matters where we need to catch up. I’m learning to be patient!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sudha's take on Goa

  1. Sudha sent me her thoughts on our recent trip to Goa. Here goes:

The Goa trip with Uma turned out to be much more of an introspective experience than I expected.

  1. Uma... Have spent a large chunk of my childhood with her…loving her , hating her, (she used to LAUGH at me!), but mostly liking her a great deal; agonizing over her handicap and keeping mum about it, because she hated anybody mentioning it. And somewhere along the way, taking it for granted, even rationalizing it all to myself. She has so many other comforts to make up the loss.. and other nonsense.

    This time in Goa, we take a walk down to the nearest store and it hits me. She can’t undertake a casual stroll without company; a small undulation can cause a bad fall ; and even idle chatter as we walk distracts, and is not without risk. And I thought I was a sensitive soul! In one of our Mumbai sessions, Uma had asked whether we got different perspectives of ourselves from feedback. That day I came face to face with myself, and didn’t like it much.

    Walking with Uma starts another trend of thought…it is so much easier when I match my stride to hers. Have I been doing that all the time? Matching my stride to other people's so that everything is easier? Uma has no choice, but what about the others in my life? Have I even given them a chance to match their strides to mine? What is my stride? Do I know… do I even want to know? And if I did find it and nobody wanted to match my stride, would I be ready to walk the path alone?

    We sit out on the beach every night after dinner. There is no moon, and the sky is dusty with stars. I feel distant from Uma, and realize that this feeling has persisted for some time now. Is this the authority problem which Venky and Sharat have been mentioning? No - I accept her superior understanding of the work we are in, and accept it gratefully.... then where is this distance coming from? If I accept the distance, it is not an uncomfortable feeling. Just that I know I love her more than this, and am unable to express it.

    The following day, over lunch, I start telling her about my passion for writing about films, and she interrupts with “What is in it for you” ; I resent that, but curb the feeling and buy time, by saying “I will think about it.” I think she catches on. Next day, Uma does a ‘dry run’ of some new exercises for the group. Surprisingly, it touches the very issue that’s troubling me. And I can tell her that I find she is too much ‘therapist’ and not enough ‘friend’. I mention my earlier resentment and she says maybe all it needed was for me to tell her not to interrupt her. Simple. Point taken.

    Somehow it is easier to talk to her now, and as we sit on the beach at night, I reach out and hold her hand. It is like being kids together again. It has been a good trip.

    Group website:

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Bad and the Ugly

I just heard of this Mexican film maker about whom there was an article in yesterday’s papers. Arturo Ripstein is the name. The movies he has made include “No one writes to the Colonel any more” and “Time to die”. In the old days I used to watch a whole lot more movies than I do today, and used to be better informed about directors and their work. No longer. In any case I am not sure if I would really have wanted to know about Senor Ripstein, even if the information had been available to me back then, because here is his philosophy of life:

“I believe in hate, revenge, sin and guilt … happiness is a ray of light you see from a taxi. Happiness is very boring…” etc etc.

Maybe I should first see a film by Ripstein before commenting on his values but I am impatient to share my thoughts about his views on life right now, and what I think is, that he seems to live on the planet of overgrown schoolboys.

In a way his philosophy helps me to understand the world and the way people react. It brings with it an insight into the violence, the greed, the fear of happiness in fact, which we mostly experience on earth. People are afraid to be happy because they imagine that it is boring to be happy. Which only proves how silly they are, and how little they understand of happiness. Or how little they see that it is hate and revenge that are boring in the long run because there is such a sameness to feelings like that. The energy they bring in their wake is enervating and monotonous. It is the sort of energy which kills – sometimes slowly, sometimes directly.

Is it that people are too stupid to see beyond their fascination with hate and guilt and associated feelings – too mesmerised by it to want to go beyond it? Are we mostly going to be stuck at this level of intelligence and to be condemned to live and re-live stories based entirely on the most primitive aspects of our psyches?

Of course the encouraging part is that Ripstein's work is not hugely popular. He is apparently funded by the government and claims not to be concerned by the fact that nobody sees his films. But then there are so many other film makers whose concentration on the gory side of life brings massive returns and a great fan following.

Maybe it will really happen some day. The earth will go up in a cloud of fire and poisonous gases. And a few of us who did not want it to end that way – if we are lucky – might be able to migrate at a speed faster than light to some far away planet and start a new species of life, (name yet to be decided) - devoted to that wonder called “awareness.”

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