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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Amid the eastern Himalayas

Well, here’s the little travelogue I promised – though I know by now that very few readers are really interested.

As I said earlier, for my daughter it was her first flight (my first was in class two, and she’s in class nine now), so naturally she was full of eager anticipation. So was I. Mercifully it was an Airbus A320 and not one of those cramped and noisy little Boeing 737s of yore. Strangely enough – and I could be mistaken, my memories being twenty years old – even this aeroplane seemed rather small. It was clean and well-served, but these days on these low-cost airlines the seating is quite cramped, and the stewardesses have been reduced to salesgirls. Not that they have much to sell except a few grossly overpriced snacks and juices. Anyway, the flight was so short that it was over almost as soon as it had started. It was a cloudy day, so though we got a fine view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks before landing at Guwahati, we missed the lovely sight of the Brahmaputra that I remembered from the last time. The road to Shillong is little more than a hundred kilometres, and the scenery is picturesque, though not as formidably grand as in the western Himalayas. But it is horribly congested, and though the widening project is visibly underway (making the trip very dusty), it took us all of six hours to reach Shillong, when it should have taken little more than three. Our hotel was, as always, decent though not fancy, but with all mod cons. That first night was pretty chilly. The next day we made a sightseeing tour of the town. Ninety per cent of the population seems to be cramped into a circle of half-km radius around the Police Bazar Chowk, and it’s basically a very crowded, noisy and flashy marketplace: all very brightly lit up on the occasion of Christmas. The whole city was in holiday mood. Most traders here are Marwaris, most tourists Bengalis, and the locals, the majority being of the Khasi tribe, seem to care little for work and a great deal for drink and revelry. The Elephant Falls and Shillong / Laitkor Peak offered some lovely views. It was good to see that these places are well-tended and guarded, and they help to earn the municipality a pretty penny. The Beadon and Bishop Falls were off-limits, because we were warned against rowdies who haunt those far-flung locations. Lady Hydari Park, the mini-zoo  and the Cathedral of Mary help of Christians all decked up for the season were particularly enjoyable.

On the 26th we drove to Cherrapunjee (locally called Sohra) and back. Lovely drive, with some more picturesque waterfalls (though, of course, if you want to see them in their full fury you must come during the monsoons), and the long stretches of heather and gorse on the low undulating hills quite justified the sobriquet of Scotland of the East. We gave the Mawsmai caves a miss, since we don’t like cramped, closed spaces and they were too crowded with tourists anyway, but the adjoining Sacred Woods were a treat, for the sheer tranquillity if nothing else. Along the way we stopped off at several viewpoints, including one from where you could look down at the plains of Bangladesh, and imagine the great ocean of dark rainclouds rolling in from the sea during June to August, which go to make this the rainiest place on earth.

The 27th was spent lazing, sun-bathing and boating at Ward’s Lake. While my wife went shopping, my daughter and I walked for two hours around the town, since both of us enjoy walking, and have begun to agree that you cannot really see a place if you stay inside a car all the time. It was quite an exercise, since we walked fast, and didn’t spare ourselves the steepest roads. It gave us quite a few photo-ops and a keen appetite, among other things. A large part of the town is under military occupation, it being the headquarters of both the 101 Area Command of the Army and the Eastern Air Command, under a Lieutenant General and an Air Marshal respectively, no less. Besides, there are cantonments of the Indo Tibetan Border Police, the CRPF and the NCC. It’s obvious that India is taking the troubles on its borders seriously, and no wonder, because both China and Bangladesh are only a few minutes by air. But the heavy military presence is largely responsible, I am sure, for keeping the town so clean and green. One awful thing about this place is that the food is prohibitively expensive, especially anything in the line of fruits and vegetables, since everything has to be carried by truck from the plains, so I was told that the locals survive largely on meat, which is relatively cheap, especially pork.

Shillong is special for me because there used to be strong family connections. My mother’s grandfather was a self-made tycoon, and he built a large part of this town, as well as the only highway (still locally called the Gauhati-Shillong Road) and Assam’s first bus transport service and departmental store. The family fortune faded rapidly after his death in 1947, but one of his daughters ran a primary school in her sprawling house where I visited almost forty years ago. Then the huge uprising of the natives began and went through the 1980s, so that most Bengalis had to sell out to the locals and depart. Now all history seems to have been wiped out. The house (N.K. Bhattacharjee and Co.) on Jail Road has been mentioned in Leela Mazumdar’s book Aar Konokhane, but the locals are mostly young and entirely uninterested in the past, and most old buildings have been razed and replaced, so that I could find no traces of what I was looking for. It was almost as bad as looking for Corbett’s house in Nainital…

We returned on the 28th. The drive back was just as slow as the first time round. The plus point was that we had a long panoramic view of Umiam Lake, aka Barapani. The temperature rose rapidly as we came down, so that freezing inside the car was speedily replaced by cooking. En route we stopped off at the famed Kamakshya temple, though I hung back, not being half as religious-minded as my wife, preferring to enjoy the view from the balcony of a house right next to the temple complex. Then back to Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi airport, which, unlike Dumdum/Netaji, offers a smoking room – and yet, they took away my lighter before I could reach it, because here, unlike in Kolkata, the rules stipulate that lighters even in the hold pose a security risk. Bureaucracy is equally cussed everywhere. The view of the lights of the city just before landing was the last bonus. We arrived at my in-laws’ place tired but happy. The next day it was my daughter’s birthday. Yesterday was spent visiting and adding a few more little touches to the new flat: for me it has become a biannual exercise! And this morning we took a Volvo home…

For photos, click on this link.

Four hours of the old year left. I wish all my readers a very Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Booklover lost among philistines

It amazes me to find among my pupils some (albeit a tiny number) who still want to read. And it makes me sigh to know that the more our schools are ‘progressing in keeping with the times’, the less opportunity these children have of reading – not just fiction but all kinds of non-fiction works, including stuff  that they need to reference for the ‘project work’ they are assigned from time to time, whether it is something about dinosaurs or the great depression or faraway stars or environmental movements or world wars. Most end up regurgitating copies of work done earlier by seniors, or material that their parents can beg, borrow or buy, or downloading stuff they have found on the net, or actually getting the project work done lock stock and barrel by professionals for a fee. And they grow up, even the bright ones among them, without having read a tiny fraction of what I’d consider absolutely necessary for someone who wants to function usefully and valuably in today’s world as an educated person.

An old boy who has recently gone over to a major university in Canada wrote back that one of his first strong impressions was that a lot of people read ‘big, fat books’ everywhere – in parks, on trains, at home. And others from some other countries aver that libraries are plentiful, well-stocked, and well-patronized. All I can do is sigh. I guess I was born in the wrong country. I would call any Indian city, including mine, civilized only when it accommodates haunts for bibliophiles like this (many thanks to Anindya Banerjee for sending me the link). I tried to buck the trend in a very small way for many years : as a schoolteacher, and even as a private person. Then I had to give up charge of the school library shortly before I resigned, and after suffering the agony of having too many books stolen and dismembered, and hearing too much parental abuse about how I was ‘misguiding and distracting’ their children I couldn’t take it any more, so I stopped lending out my own books routinely to my pupils, too. The generation of kids growing up in front of my eyes now, my daughter’s generation, has read virtually nothing beyond textbooks and comics ( a lot haven’t even read Tintin and Asterix!), so no matter what I ask them to talk or write about, be it parachutes or pumas, deserts or dreams, they evince an ignorance, or even worse, unconcern, that makes my heart ache. And I never cease wondering how such utterly ignorant folks can go on to get and hold down jobs that I once supposed required a great deal of knowledge!

So today, when I encourage young people to read, I have adopted a different tack. I don’t tell them merely that it would help them to become good doctors and engineers and business managers, because I now know that’s a lie: I rather tell them it will make them fuller, happier, more mature people, better able to cope with the challenges of life, having more real entertainment at their command than those who depend on parties and shopping and festivals, less likely to be swept off their feet by the siren song of advertizing, and proud of themselves for knowing a lot more about the world and about mankind than their peers do.

Imagine an eighteen year old who has grown up without having read (and remembered-) not only the world’s finest fairy tales but the Mahabharata and Shakespeare and Tagore and Russell, and not even Dickens and Conan Doyle and Wilde and Shaw and Wells and Kipling and Wodehouse and Hemingway and Asimov and Gerald Durrell and Herriot and Corbett and Jack London and Alistair Maclean and Nevil Shute and Chekhov and Pushkin and Tolstoy and Balzac and Hugo, nor even the great modern classics like Gone with the wind, All Quiet on the Western Front, Anne Frank’s Diary, To kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, The Good Earth, How Green was my Valley, Exodus and The Agony and the Ecstasy… who has hardly even encountered any contemporary writer of greater substance than Chetan Bhagat! It takes my breath away, it makes me feel like a lone man on the Planet of the Apes. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

AMRI blaze: who really cares?

At latest count, about ninety people, most of them helpless patients, died in the accidental fire that broke out yesterday at one of Kolkata’s premier (and most expensive –) hospitals. Most of them choked to death. See this report.

Virtually every adult in this country knows, of course, that our closed public spaces are high-risk fire hazards as a rule. Occasional disasters merely remind us of this grotesque fact, such as the fire on the Doon Express a few days ago, the blaze at Stephen’s Court, also in Kolkata some time ago, the news of a large number of schoolchildren who were roasted alive somewhere in south India before that, and a similar incident at a Delhi cinema a few years before that. We live with that knowledge, preferring not to think about it, since we all feel that very ordinary people like us cannot do a thing by ourselves to change things for the better, and praying is better than worrying that it may happen to us or ours, since worry only leads to bad dreams and ulcers.

The fact of the matter, though, is that it isn’t only ordinary people (who are most likely to be the victims) who don’t care: those in power don’t, either. Most places like schools, offices, bazaars, cinemas and hospitals either do not have clearances showing that they are prepared to handle such emergencies with minimum loss of life and limb, or even if their papers are in order, the ground reality is that they are entirely unprepared, both in terms of equipment and trained personnel. It’s like not only do you shut your eyes when you look at disaster hurtling towards your car, but your driver does too! So the security guards not only do not swing into action at once but dally in raising the alarm, the police arrive late, the firemen, despite their courage and best of intentions, are handicapped by woefully inadequate equipment too, and they all have to rely on the spontaneous and desperate assistance given by the men from the nearby slum – who, ironically, are personae non grata to the authorities in the normal course of things! They do their best, of course, but that best, being clumsy and chaotic, cannot prevent a horrific casualty toll. After a brief outburst of lamentation and indignation – maybe a roadblock for a few hours, a few buses burnt, a few low level functionaries beaten up, some compensation announced and some condolences offered – the public forgets, the media turn their attention to newer sensations, the police cases are covered up, the culprits (to wit the moneybags who run these profit-churning institutions and cannot bother to ‘waste money’ on safety precautions) let off with  minor reprimands and fines, and no strict, large-scale, exhaustive measures are adopted to ensure that such horrors will never be repeated.

That some people, layman or high official, claim to be shocked when such mishaps occur is what makes me want to puke.  Why do they pretend, grown-up and educated people, that they don’t know how uncaring and inept we are, most of us, at taking responsibility for others, even when that happens to be our job? The other day I had asked some pupils to write a short essay on the kind of fire-control measures they had at school, and they had little idea – no fault of theirs! – and when I told them about some of the rules (fire escapes, extinguishers and sandbags on every floor, at least a few full-body asbestos suits for emergency rescue, sick room with nurses skilled in first aid, police and fire brigade hotlines, regular evacuation drills and teachers trained compulsorily to handle such crises…) they laughed cynically, as well they might, knowing whatever they already do: ‘Sir, is there one school in this country which is fully prepared in that sense?’ And as for this particular hospital, let me narrate just one incident in which I was personally involved. About 11 years ago I had gone there to get a CAT scan done (there was a pain in the neck and the doctor suspected spondylitis). I asked about costs at the reception, and the figure they quoted sounded exorbitant to me, so I was visibly hesitating when the man asked ‘How much money do you have in your pocket (apni koto taka enechhen)? It sounded such a bizarre question that I felt I was talking to a carrion-eating vulture, not a human being. I turned around without a word  and went off to get the scan done elsewhere. This is the attitude of the personnel who deal with you first at that hospital. Is it any wonder that they would be ghoulishly unconcerned about patient safety? Tellingly, while a couple of nurses lost their lives trying to save sick children, a lot of staffers, including securitymen, allegedly ran for safety at the first hint of serious danger.

One Bengali newspaper (Shongbad Protidin, p. 4) has published a very sympathetic article today about the proprietor of the hospital, one S.K. Todi, saying what a nice man he is, and how hard he has worked to give the city a great hospital, how unfair it is of fate to deal him such a big blow in his declining years, and how this ‘utterly unexpected’ disaster has left him a broken man. CM Mamata Banerjee has promptly cancelled the licence of the hospital, and vowed to give the ‘harshest punishment’ to the guilty. It remains to be seen whether she would like to start with Mr. Todi. If he is not an arch criminal making money hand over fist with utter disregard for human life, can’t we at least agree that he is too big a fool (if he really thinks the disaster was ‘utterly unexpected’) to be trusted with running anything more serious than a street-corner paan shop?

One last word for the young and not-so-young who worship the wealthy like gods: these are the CEO types who drive about in BMWs, stay in seven-star hotels and go holidaying in the Riviera. Do you begin to see why I habitually wrinkle my nose when I hear of them?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Bbuddah hoga terra baap!

Just watched Amitabh Bachchan’s Bbuddah hoga terra baap.

As one reviewer has put it: “Corny, a little desperate and contrived, but Bbuddah Hoga knows that and doesn’t care… Bachchan playacts here, but with chutzpah and humour and still has the power to make you smile and weep… for fans, it is one big, happy bear cuddle with the man with whom they’ve had their longest love affair.” And by God, it stirs nostalgia with spades.

The director says at the end that it is an unabashed and feisty tribute to the icon so many of us have grown up with (and like whom so many of us are growing old now), and many of us, even very solemn and learned and successful ones among us, have secretly longed to emulate, at least in some ways, at least at some stage of our lives.

What a career it has been, through so many ups and downs, so many disasters, so many write-offs, so many comebacks, so many avatars! Just glancing down a list of all the memorable movies and roles takes one’s breath away. Since the days of Saat Hindusthani and Anand we had Zanzeer, and Namak Haram and Chupke Chupke and Deewar, through all-time landmarks like Sholay, and then Amar Akbar Antony, Muquaddar ka Sikandar, Kaala Patthar, Adaalat, Trishul, Don, Silsila and Shakti, by which time he was probably the most famous Indian alive, through the disaster years that began with the near-fatal accident on the sets of Coolie, disease and family trouble and political mess and financial crisis, and then, when virtually everyone had given up on him as a burnt-out has-been, barring occasional blips like Agneepath and Suryavansham, there came the renaissance that started with Mohabbatein and has not run out of steam yet, and he has already given us as varied fare as Bunty aur Babli, Cheeni Kum, Black, Viruddh, Baghban, Paa, Sarkar, Bhootnath, Nishabd, Dev, Khaki, Rann and The Last Lear.  Along the way he made a huge success of KBC on TV, and has managed to impress all kinds of industry greats including Francois Truffaut and Satyajit Ray, for that unique trademark baritone if nothing else, and has even set his own benchmark as a playback singer (who can say s/he has been unaffected by Mere pas awo mere doston ek kissa suno or Main or meri tanhai or Rang barse…? you should try out this latest number too, if you haven't heard it already).

And he has never really been handsome and smart, either, except insofar as he defined those ideas to fit himself and persuade hundreds of millions of cinegoers, including those who were always a little worried about whether he could even act at all! What can you say about a man like that? What kind of staying power does it call for, what kind of talent and grit? All I could think of after watching Bbuddah was, be as solemn or corny or heartrending or way out as you like, Mr. Bachchan, only live and act some more years, and “do not go gentle into that good night… rage, rage against the dying of the light.”