Explore this blog by clicking on the labels listed along the right-hand sidebar. There are lots of interesting stuff which you won't find on the home page
Seriously curious about me? Click on ' What sort of person am I?'

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A holiday long overdue

All through May I just slogged, slept, followed the unavoidable election mania and survived. Then on the 23rd I left for Kolkata. From Saturday the 24th to Friday the 30th my daughter and I were away, travelling in the hills of north Bengal and east Sikkim. It was an unusual trip in more ways than one.

To start with, this was the first time ever I was travelling with only my daughter for company (it turned out to be so pleasurable that I hope there will be many, many more). Secondly, the flight to Bagdogra was a repeat of the very first one in my life, 43 years ago, and nothing significant seemed to have changed, except that the aeroplanes are far more crowded these days, and full of the hoi polloi (I simply can’t help sneering, sorry. Democracy combined with rapidly spreading and increasing incomes can be an awful thing, since people tend to carry their lack of potty training everywhere). Thirdly because this was the first ever ‘package tour’ that I did in a long lifetime of travelling, and I shall pull the veil lightly over the experience with a heartfelt ‘never again’: if the poet’s lines ‘where every prospect pleases and only man is vile’ passed through my mind once during the course of the trip, it must have done so a hundred times. Thankfully my daughter, after her very first experience, is absolutely in agreement with me on this. And to think that it was only a small group, with no loud and messy children in tow, either...

Fourthly, instead of putting up in hotels as we usually do, we stayed for the most part in what they locally call ‘homestay’ facilities, cottages put up, maintained and serviced by the denizens of remote and picturesque villages. It is an idea that has caught on in various parts of India, and in Bengal and Sikkim, they get help and encouragement from the state governments’ departments of tourism. Well, things have gotten off the ground pretty recently there, and unlike their equivalents in, say, Kerala or Rajasthan, these places are definitely downmarket, with all the pros and cons that entails. They are easy on the pocket, and you can really get away from the madding crowds, for one thing. The hosts are friendly, helpful and kind. The facilities are just one step above spartan (thick blankets yes, hot water, mostly, at least once a day, but in one place they didn’t even have an  electric supply, and I for one don’t find that enjoyable or romantic, not if there’s no power supply round the clock. In most of the locations there was no internet connection, and phone services were erratic and patchy). Calling the roads ‘terrible’ in some places would be an understatement, and on our way back twice the car nearly got stuck in knee deep mud, which would have meant our missing the train. But all’s well that ends well.

Fifthly, we left Kolkata in blazing heat, and back on Friday morning it was sweltering again, yet in between the rain, sometimes squally rain, followed us all the way through, turning into a brief snowstorm when we were visiting Kupup Lake above Dzuluk at 13,000 feet, close to the border with China. The sky had grown overcast by Sunday evening, and Monday through Wednesday it just kept on raining. So it was a very, very wet mountain tour, and it didn’t help that between us my daughter and I had one umbrella and no waterproof clothing at all, but were determined to walk around as much as we could. I’ve got this nasty cold that will take some time to go away...

We followed what the tourism people call the ‘Old Silk Route’. Thrilling to think that this was the route Sir Francis Younghusband followed on his (in-)famous expedition to Lhasa back in 1903-4. So from Siliguri we drove to Kalimpong, then Pedong, and then up six km or so of what used to be a foot track until only a short while ago to Sillery Gaon for our first night’s stay. Our walk through the woods as dusk was falling, enchanting as it was, had to be cut short when we remembered that a policeman on election duty had been badly mauled by a stray bear not too far away, and that too in broad daylight!  The next morning we went on to Aritar for a view of the picturesque little lake, then put up at a hotel where the biggest attraction was a very furry and sleepy old dog that couldn’t have enough of cuddling. Off to Lingtam the next day, through driving rain and fog. They are building a road to Bhutan from there, the locals told me. Then the tough drive up to Dzuluk on the coldest day yet, and further upwards along one of the snakiest mountain roads I have ever encountered to Kupup or Elephant Lake, from where Gangtok is barely 50 km away, albeit across very rough and high-altitude terrain. The army was an unobtrusive but highly visible presence everywhere. On the last day, it was a glorious dawn with blue sky and bright sunshine again. It was a long drive via Rongli and Rangpo to New Jalpaiguri, where a clean railway retiring room gave us privacy and rest and a chance to freshen up before we took the train in the evening for a quiet and comfortable ride back home.

Our travelling companions, typical middle class Bengalis, grumbled about everything all the way, from the food to the lack of comforts to the absence of views of snow capped mountain peaks (just like those who visit some wildlife park and if they don’t manage to glimpse a tiger complain that they couldn’t see ‘anything’), but Pupu and I found the scenery wonderful, lush rainwashed greenery and wild flowers in such profusion, and the fog casting a magic spell over it all. Little roadside cascades gushing down through the dense foliage, every one of them beckoning you to stop, stand and stare. And when you were walking along the pine forests enveloped in deep shadows, you could sometimes cut the silence with a knife: I have a chance to hear water dripping in the woods and crickets chirping in the thousands in the daytime only once in a while, and can never have enough. And my God, the variety of butterflies... they even came into your room at night by the dozen if you kept the door open for a bit. What restful sleep we had those four nights, despite having to get up early every morning! To come back to the city, though only about 700 km or so away, was far more of a wrench than going from New York to Shanghai, when just about nothing changes except for the faces and the skin colour.

So now I am back in the Big Bad City once more, and by day after tomorrow I shall be back to the old grind (I hope my several hundred children will be glad to see me again). It’s been a nice break on the whole, and I am already wondering what I should do with the next one. I hope clean, quiet and green places sparsely inhabited by nice, slow, easy going people survive a while longer for those of future generations who get fed up with city life every now and then. In this I am only echoing Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay from back in the 1930s.

P.S., June 02: To see a few photos, click here

June 08: last of the photos added.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Patriotism? pshaw!

Patriotism seems to be the flavour of the season, now that we have got a ‘nationalist’ prime minister. What kind of patriotic upsurge should I like to see in India? Let’s see:

I’d like schools to pay much more attention to the teaching of history, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea if all young people were familiarized with Sanskrit, so that they could explore a little of our intellectual and spiritual treasures for themselves (or at least be taught some of the same in translations into their vernaculars).

I should like people not just putting up bumper stickers saying ‘mera Bharat mahaan’, but doing things to make her so – myriad little things from not cheating in examinations and using foul language and littering the streets to earning their pay.

I should like them (at least as far as the French and Japanese  and Russians have managed to do) to come out from the spell of the worst of Anglo-Saxon pop culture, whether that means shopping for ‘entertainment’ or chatting night and day on Facebook or drinking Pepsi instead of lassi or deliberately avoiding or bastardizing their mother tongues or calling monkeying music or flirting with the opposite sex for most of their lifetimes without any serious commitment of any kind, not even to one’s children.

I should like all Indians regardless of religion to commit their loyalty unequivocally to this nation and her Constitution, without demanding any kind of special privileges whatsoever beyond what extreme poverty and helplessness might entitle any human being to. Specifically, raising foreign flags must meet with immediate and severe punishment under the law, and claims for separate civil codes.

I should like Indian men to aim at becoming men rather than crooks, time-servers or lafungas (regardless of whether they are lafungas with bicycles or BMWs), and women to become worthy of respect by virtue of their work, not because they just happen to be women. Both sexes have a whole pantheon of ideals to choose from, yet their abiding sin is that they all want simultaneously to be ‘ordinary’ and be ‘respected’. And a billion ‘ordinary’ people keep dreaming that some great leader will turn them into an extraordinary nation. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

I want Indians to relearn the virtue of respect. If you want to get it someday, start by giving it today to those who deserve it. Deserve it, mind you, not merely because they are older or more powerful in one way or the other. We are as good at faking respect as we are bad at showing the real thing: trying to be truly respectful discomfits and angers us, because it forces us to face up to our own inferiority.

I would like ‘ordinary’ Indians to think and talk more about things like the Himalayas, and the great rivers and forests, and real science, and art, and justice, rather than to gossip about cricket and Bollywood and what the neighbours are doing.

I would like Indians to shed hypocrisy to the furthest extent possible. Specifically, if all you can do with life is to get a nondescript job and get married, don’t talk about things of the mind and spirit. And don’t mouth ideals that you know your parents will never allow you to uphold in real life, or even if they did, you just don’t have the guts to practise. At least get beaten up on the street once for the sake of one of those underdogs you so love to defend in the cosy safety of your bedroom via the internet. I have, and not once. Leave big talk to big people. Democracy does not mean mouthing platitudes or howling with the mob, especially when your favourite mob is saying things that are currently politically correct and safe, like giving one more thumbs up to Malala Yousufzai. You want to wear hardly-there skirts or defend gay rights, go and do it in a Haryana village, not on the Jadavpur University campus. Wimps sound like lions when they know they are perfectly safe…

You love India, show it by staying here and doing the best you can all your life. Don’t slaver after a green card or boast about how many successful relatives of yours are settled in the United States, nor groan about how India does not offer ‘good enough opportunities’ for someone as wonderful as you. C.V. Raman and Satyajit Ray didn’t. In any  case, India has done enough for the Ambanis and Aamir Khan and MS Dhoni and me: maybe you are just worthless, and don’t deserve anything better than what you have got? Stick to that cybercoolie’s job in Bangalore and thank your lucky stars you are not a farmer in Andhra Pradesh…

Friday, May 16, 2014

Dawn of a new era?

The people have spoken, and more decisively than for a long time in the recent past.

Here are a few off-the-cuff observations, entirely personal in nature, looking at the results as available on the night of 16th May.

1.      I am glad that the Congress has not just been soundly trounced, but reduced almost to insignificance. Perhaps they will at last start the many-decades delayed process of cleaning the Augean stables, starting with getting rid of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty once and for all?
2.      I confess I did not expect the BJP to win absolute majority on its own. This changes the game like nothing else could – given that a) they don’t even need the other NDA partners to form a government, and b) that one man had been projected almost unanimously as the new leader right from the start of the electoral campaign. Whether we like it or not, we are going to get a ‘strong’ government with a vengeance.
3.      Giving all political pundits the lie, regional parties have suddenly shrunk into insignificance on the national stage. For some time to come, at least, it is only what the top leadership of the BJP think that will matter so far as Indian governmental policy is concerned. This was not the case on Vajpayee’s watch. There will be a lot of interesting developments following from this, I am sure.
4.      The Aam Admi Party has vanished into the inconsequence it richly deserved. I was fed to the back teeth with the politically illiterate and puerile ‘anti-corruption’ melodrama conducted by someone whose basic claim to public attention – for the short while it lasted – was that he graduated from IIT and was good at using twitter. The fellow had begun to dream that he could at least become kingmaker. RIP.
5.      Ms. Mamata Banerjee has seen the fulfilment of her life’s dream – to see the CPI(M) being virtually wiped out of West Bengal at every level from the panchayats to the Lok Sabha. (Given that the Left Front hardly existed without West Bengal, and given that they have won about 12 seats in the Lok Sabha this time, their very survival might be at stake). I wonder, though, whether she will be able to deliver good governance to the state in the next few years – and the fact that she has queered the pitch with the incoming Union government by campaigning virulently and very personally against Narendra Modi is not going to help matters where the state’s interests are concerned, since her 30-odd seats in the Lok Sabha are worth nothing to the PM-to-be.
6.      The government of the United States must be squirming and sweating blood. The man who is about to become PM of India is still on their list of people to whom a visa remains banned! Talk about having to swallow humble pie. And I wonder what they are thinking in Islamabad and Beijing…?
7.      Modi’s sweeping success at the hustings underscores something I have believed for a long time – that the opinions of the urban, well-off intelligentsia or the chattering classes or whatever you call them, especially as expressed through English-language newspapers and TV channels, just don’t matter. They are most of the time – maybe they choose to be – hopelessly out of touch with ground realities.
8.      Corporate India seems to be happy, and the stock markets are on a roll. Shape of things to come, or will the dream sour within months? I won’t lay bets, just wait and watch…
9.      I have not suddenly become a Narendra Modi fan. Just let it go on record that I am awestruck by the speed with which he went from someone who was hardly known outside his home state even a year ago (unless it was for his so-called ‘tainted’ record of being communal) to being the anointed claimant to the national throne. And I certainly believe that he is a determined, full-time politician not a dilettante (the type I most despise), that unlike many of his fellow politicians he knows his own mind, and that he deserves a chance now that he has come this far, if only to prove that he wasn’t worth the hype and hoopla. After all, he has played by the rules, and he has never shown any signs that he wants to break the basic rules – what else do you want in a democracy? And it makes my blood boil to hear the argument that ‘after all he started as a chaiwallah’. I am an unabashed elitist in many ways, but this is not the kind of elitism I believe in. Finally, the fact that there has been a wave in favour of the BJP even in Uttar Pradesh, with its very sizeable Muslim population, seems to indicate that despite everything, our Muslims have not decided en masse to treat him like an untouchable demon. Vox populi, vox dei, remember, all you disgruntled folks?

India 2014-2019 is going to be an interesting place to live in.

P.S.: This blogpost of mine provides what I should think is an unexceptionable roadmap for any government that wants to make a real and permanent difference for the better.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

It's hard to be a father!

‘When does a dad go wrong? And when he does, can he ever forgive himself?’

So I wrote in a post here four years ago, recalling an incident from the life of my daughter (and mine) when she was a tiny tot. I can assure my readers that the incident is still as vivid in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

And now my daughter is going to be eighteen in a few months’ time, and I have nearly had a quarrel with her (as close as we can ever come to quarrelling, that is, and that has never happened till now), and had to say ‘no’ to something she very badly wanted to do, and all I can say is that it broke my heart to do it, and I shall never know whether I did the right thing or not, but being the kind of father I am, I just couldn’t help it.

As my daughter wrote in a recent blogpost of hers, she participated on behalf of her school in a ‘peer guide training’ programme for a travelling exhibition organised in Kolkata by the world-renowned Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She apparently made a mark on them, because they contacted her later on and asked her to write for their newsletter, which she did. Events rolled on, until just a few weeks ago they called her to say she was invited to attend a one-week international students’ conference in August at Anne Frank House itself, all expenses paid. Naturally she was ecstatic at the opportunity – I do not know too many people of her age anywhere who can boast of as much earned entirely by their own merit – and I virtually gave her permission to go. And then I had to backtrack, alas! I shall spare my readers the details, but suffice it to say that I found out she had to travel to and fro entirely alone, and I had banked on an ex student of mine who lives close to Amsterdam to keep an eye on her, but as luck would have it, it turned out that he wouldn’t be there at that time. I realized I simply couldn’t take the risk – as I told my daughter, I am just a timid old stick in the mud – and though I even for a while considered the possibility of going over with her, I eventually rejected it as being just too impractical.

So now she has been bitterly disappointed, and had to tell Anne Frank House that she isn’t coming. They have been very nice about it. It is of course entirely possible that she will get such an invitation again in future, and if my prayers and blessings count for anything at all, she will get many similar opportunities in the years to come. She has been kind enough to say she has forgiven me, and even that on second thoughts she feels it would indeed have been too big a risk to take, and in any case she has already turned her mind to the holiday trips we have planned, and the exams ahead. But she also knows that baba will be sorry and feel guilty for the rest of his life.

Why does the Almighty test fathers so sorely?