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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Travelling once more...

It seems only the other day that I sat down to write about my holiday trip Himachal way, and already another whole year and another grand vacation has come and gone. How fast time flies. All that is sweet in life lies in looking forward to happy things and relishing their memories afterwards in the soft, warm glow of recollection. Thus passes the glory of this world!

This year wasn’t a good one for me – to put it very mildly. Not much about that here: those who know (my wife knows much more than anybody else) don’t need to be told; others don’t need to know. Suffice it to say that unlike most years this time round I wasn’t too sure until only a few days before whether I would be making that long-overdue holiday trip or not. My two old boys Arani and Aakash, both currently working and sharing a flat in Delhi, kept up a barrage of incessant requests, telling me again and again that I was coming over to stay and travel with them in end-December, and it is largely owing to their steady, eager urging that I finally decided to go because it would be churlish to say no.

Subhadip Biswas, my ever-faithful pointman in the capital (what wouldn’t a cabinet minister give to have a secretary as loyal and dependable as he! God grant him a great career; whoever employs him, in whatever capacity, would be lucky indeed), was there to receive me at the railway station for the fourth year in a row; this time so were Arani and Aakash to give me a right royal welcome and ride home. What with Arani’s doting and enormously hospitable parents hovering over us, it was really like being home away from home (only the third time that way in Delhi for me). We lazed around the city a bit, taking in the lights, then pushed off the same evening by an ‘A/c-special’ train to Dehradun. Arriving at about 7 in the morning, we hired a car that made a three-hour trip (part of the road in a hair-raising state of disrepair, thanks to frequent landslides) to drop us off at a lovely and cosy little hotel in a quiet, out of the way hamlet called Chakrata nestling in the Garhwal hills at a height of about 6500 feet, offering a magnificent panorama of a huge range of snowclad Himalayan peaks, including the Yamunotri range. Mercifully, those two days we stayed at Chakrata (and only those two!) were blessed with bright, crisp sunshine, and we had the best suite, so the views we had took our breath away. Being a military cantonment where tourism is definitely not encouraged, Chakrata remains one of those (vanishingly few) hill stations which are still unsullied by the curse of overpopulation and ‘development’ – despite the fact that the local literacy rate is close to 90 per cent! It is located on a thickly wooded hill, in sharp contrast to the moonscape-like terrain of rugged and bare hills all around, so it offered very lovely walks too. The delightful chill in the air gave us the excuse to indulge in a real log fire at night (a first for my daughter), and the service was excellent and the meals were mouth-watering and the conversation as rich as I could ask for, and all of us were in good health, so that’s as close to heaven as one gets, I suppose!

On the third day we drove off to Hardwar via Mussoorie, a long and expensive trip, and the driver was surly and unhelpful, but the scenic views greatly compensated for all that, and the drive down from Mussoorie to Dehradun, followed by the one that takes you through Rajaji (Chilla-) National Park on the way to Hardwar from Hrishikesh, charmed as much as ever, though I was doing it for the fourth time. As in Delhi, it was (surprisingly) hardly cold in Hardwar, and there was disappointingly little water in the Ganga (it was even worse at Lachhmanjhula!), and far too many people, but we got the best possible hotel right on Subhas Ghat, a stone’s throw from the famed Har-ki-pauri – twice before, looking up at the lights while walking along the riverside, my wife and I had sighed to think it would be too costly for the likes of us to afford, so this time, having dared to find out, we were most pleasantly surprised. We moved around quite a bit, of course, but we could have happily lazed around on that balcony, watching the day’s routine scenario unfolding before and below our eyes, from dawn to dusk without a whiff of boredom. Arani had to leave for Delhi a day early, but Aakash kept us company, and vowed that this first visit of his would be a very satisfying memory. I think every one of us thoroughly enjoyed the Ganga aarti ceremony at evenfall, chokingly overcrowded as the ghats were. There was a long midnight wait at Hardwar station for the train that took us to Delhi, and when we arrived at dawn, the drive home in racing autorickshaws through fog so dense you could hardly see the tail lights of the cars ahead of you was enough to satiate my middle-aged appetite for adventure. That day, too, we had an MUV at our disposal, and Subhadip took us around to see some more sights. We took in the National Gandhi Museum, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, lunched at Eatopia in the India Habitat Centre, strolled around the lovely Lodhi Gardens (though Arani swore they had been far more lush only a couple of months back), snacked at Chocko-la in Khan Market, and then made a beeline for home; we were falling asleep on our feet! Dinner at Arani’s place was a treat that we could hardly do justice to.

Then it was back to Kolkata. A day’s rest, and my daughter’s birthday quietly celebrated. A very dear old girl, who had come over from the US to get married, very kindly took the trouble to see us off at Howrah station, and embarrassed us by literally shoving a load of lovely gifts into our arms (my best wishes to her and her husband for a long and happy married life). A swift, untroubled trip back home, and again we were received by two favourite old boys – one of whom, Stotra, had been generous enough to keep a watchful eye on my house and garden all the time I was away. And as usual, we were united in feeling that while the trip was much needed and much enjoyed, it was good to be back home!

Those who are interested in photographs might look up the following link (best seen in slideshow mode, with the timer set to 10-15 seconds). I haven’t bothered to upload videos.

Now here are a few observations by way of summing up:

1. The Rajdhani Express is a pale shadow of its former self. I wish we had better trains in the luxury segment, even if they cost more. Faster, more comfortable, quieter, and less filled with newly-rich riffraff. I have always loved trains, but now I’m having trouble coping.
2. There are simply too many people – and crooks, con men and beggars – everywhere these days, metros and holy places included.
3. The sons and daughters of the idle, uncouth, ostentatious super-rich are the same disgusting types everywhere. I wish there were a law against them, like they have laws against stray dogs in some countries.
4. Among the curious sights I saw this time round, sadhus fighting tooth and nail over alms was one of the most remarkable.
5. There used to be an old and long-standing complaint among Bengalis living in Delhi that you can’t get good fish anywhere, unless you shop in Chittaranjan Park. No longer. Arani treated me to some of the most delicious fish I have ever eaten, and I am no great fish-lover, either!
6. A large number of ex-students got together to make this trip particularly heartwarming for me. I often feel blue to think of how little people remember me and what I have done for them in years gone by, but some people might quite possibly envy me: few teachers these days can boast of so many old boys who care, and care so much. My most grateful thanks to them, and blessings. This year’s good experience has gone a long way to help me live down the distressing events that followed my last trip. Those who have dropped out of my life I regret no longer: there are still apparently plenty of others who are only too glad to warm the cockles of my old heart. More power to their elbows. I hope they enjoyed doing everything they did. They can take satisfaction from the knowledge that these year-end trips fill me with new vigour and enthusiasm to cope with the almost-thankless drudgery through the year ahead.

There's just about an hour and a half of 2008 left as I publish this post. I wish every reader a very Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Parents a decade from now!

A teacher called Charles Sykes has written some wonderful advice for youngsters graduating from high school these days. It gives me nightmares to think they will start becoming parents within a decade from now! He had American kids in mind, but I am sure  it applies equally well to the ‘smart set’ of the same age group in India (some people were passing it off as a spoof on the Net, claiming it was a speech that Bill Gates has recently made. It wasn’t Bill, but that doesn’t take away one whit from the truth and importance of what is being said):
Rule 1:  Life is not fair - get used to it!
Rule 2:   The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.
Rule 3:  You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.
Rule 4:   If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.
Rule 5:   Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.
Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.
Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents' generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.
Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.
Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you “FIND YOURSELF”. Do that on your own time.
Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one!             
If you agree, pass it on.
If you can read this - Thank a teacher!

Contrast the attitude manifest in the above sermon with the reality about today’s youngsters (again, I don’t see much difference between American kids and their wannabe Indian clones…): watch this sad and shocking video song on youtube: http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=7uSlqI1AVUk
I am thankful to Sion Chowdhury, in his third undergraduate year at Jadavpur University, Dept. of English, for kindly providing me with the above link. Do watch the video: you won't get the point of this blogpost without reflecting upon it!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Forests, tribals and sombre thoughts

Someone has posted something about our beautiful forests and the tribals who live there on his blog recently which brought a variety of interconnected thoughts flooding into my mind.

1. In connection with the beauty of our natural surroundings: here in India we have some of the most picturesque and spectacular places in the world, but, unlike in ‘advanced’ countries we (by we I specifically mean the educated, rich and powerful – the whole middle class included, politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, doctors, accountants, lawyers, journalists, teachers and all) don’t collectively value and therefore don’t have any serious desire to preserve them; rather, whatever the dread hand of ‘development’ touches is immediately despoiled, polluted and ruined. That applies to all our forests and wildlife; very soon, all the experts sadly say, there will be little of either left: we shall only have forests of shopping malls and multiplexes and housing estates and steel mills and IT-‘parks’ everywhere instead, and I am sure most of us will be perfectly happy. We have become a vast race of philistines: what a wonder that some of us still boast that we have inherited one of the oldest and richest ‘cultures’ of the world! What a wonder that one of the most hauntingly beautiful of Sanskrit poems, Abhignyan Shakuntalam, speaks so eloquently of how deeply humans can love trees. To us, ‘modern’ Indians (unlike, say, to the French, Germans, Japanese and even Americans) that is so backdated, so uncool! It’s neither sms text nor Britney Spears nor quantum mechanics, after all.

2. The plight of the wretched of the earth – our tribals prominently among them – never seems to change, despite all the rhetoric about socialism and welfare, despite all the grand governmental plans, despite all the money supposedly earmarked year after year, decade after decade, despite all the good work done by countless selfless people for their upliftment, despite all the magic formulas chanted night and day by comfortable and secure votaries of the free market. In what I consider one of the twenty greatest books of the 20th century written anywhere in the world, Aranyak (The Forest’s Tale), Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee spoke with shame and dismay about a very old tribal so poor that he had walked all night through dense jungle to eat a large bowl of rice when the manager-babu of the zamindar’s estate was giving a feast for the likes of him. That was more than eighty years ago. And today, after more than sixty years of ‘development’ as a free country, we hear that the mass of such tribals still live in the same kind of indigence, helplessness and hopelessness. And we the ‘moderns’ are not a whit ashamed to boast of our mobile-revolution, and automobile revolution, and of how many of our whizkids are contributing to the software industry. Cry, the beloved country!

3. Blame it all on illiteracy and the population explosion: that is how the know-it-all ‘intelligentsia’ has been salving its conscience for so long. Well, if those were the only factors responsible (rather than the stupidity, callousness and greed of the most privileged classes), why didn’t we take drastic enough steps early on to ensure that they no longer remained serious issues in 2008? When shall we ever say ‘it’s high time’? Why have we – as a nation – focused so maniacally on only furthering the narrow and selfish interests of the most privileged classes, so that development has come to mean only urban luxuries for those who continue to stay back in India (luxuries that make us and our children ever fatter, ruder, greedier and stupider – not those that make us healthier and wiser, like parks and libraries and good movies and museums, for instance), and opportunities for millions of them to flee permanently to ‘better’ countries?

4. Wildlife will vanish, because they cannot fight back to make a change for the better. Humans, alas, can. I do not find it a cause for wonder that tribals are organizing and rising violently against all the humiliation, deprivation and oppression heaped on them for ages – in the name of development, too (at least the Mughals and the British made no such pretence!), rising all over Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and elsewhere. I find it wonderful, rather, that they are still not rising in large enough numbers, and violently enough, to make a real difference. I also find it sad and futile that they take out their wrath on the least privileged of the privileged classes – ill paid police constables, local level politicos, junior field engineers, very petty bureaucrats and so on. Even killing thousands of suchlike will not change anything in the corridors of power, anything in the mindset of those who make big decisions, those who take away 99 percent of the benefits of ‘development’ every time. The killing fields will only grow bloodier, as the state hits back to wreak blind vengeance on behalf of those who matter: cabinet ministers, tycoons, film stars, cricketers ... and their families. In a democratic country, only "VIPs" really matter (does anybody honestly think that there would have been a tenth of the uproar if the terrorists had attacked a large dharmshala instead of the Taj? Remember, 30,000 plus perished in the Orissa cyclone, and the tsunami of December 2005 killed more than 150,000!) Very many of us non-VIPs and our near and dear ones will perish in the crossfire. Alas, none of us will have the moral right to call ourselves ‘innocent’ victims. Remember, by their definition the British CID was quite justified in calling Kshudiram Bose a ‘terrorist’, because, after all, his bomb killed two ‘innocent’ British civilians, a defenceless woman and a child at that! And if making a prediction like this brands me as an enemy of the people (as defined by Ibsen and Satyajit Ray), so be it. One does not have to sympathize with the 'Maoists' to understand where all the anger is coming from.

5. One last thought. As any social psychologist knows, science itself has a culture and a history: what people choose to study and why depends a very great deal on the social mindset in which they grow up. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why most of our ‘good’ students want to study science, and that too engineering or mathematics or physics, rather than zoology or botany, leave alone history and economics and law and political science and literature and philosophy? Perhaps it’s not just because the first category leads to easy and well-paid jobs quickly, perhaps the more important reason is that in their subconscious they and their parents know that the latter category deals with far more difficult and messy problems which are best avoided? – If that is true, fine, but just how long can we keep running away, how many of us, and how far? Can our 300-million strong middle class migrate en masse to America or Europe when there’s nothing left in India to exploit, and it has grown too dangerous to live in?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Honesty, our style

A prosperous shopkeeper is asked by his little grandson, 'Grampa, what does honesty mean?'
Grampa chooses his words carefully. 'Suppose a customer overpays me Rs. 100. I should share half of this with my brother, who runs the shop alternately with me. He would never have known if I hadn't told him, but I should. That's honesty.'
'But grampa - what about the customer? He overpaid, didn't you say? Shouldn't you...'
'Don't bother about the customer, boy. That's not our concern. He ought to have been more careful.'
[I got this gem from a little book of witticisms written in Bangla by Tarapada Ray. And I shall be the first to admit that I know a lot of shopkeepers who are not like that!]