Moving down are Pandals and Durga Idols I simply cannot recall where from. All pandal hopping took place between 1 AM and 8 AM, by two individuals new to the city. If anyone can identify these locations, please do let me know
This post was originally written on 26th March 2015 in the wake of India’s defeat in the World Cup semi-final against Australia. The post was published in OpIndia.com and can be read here.
The streets outside office are chaotic to say the least, with Kolkata’s trademark yellow cabs zipping around in all directions in the junction with murderous intent, while hordes of people deftly maneuver around them on foot, cigarettes in hand and unfazed in expression. Majestic stone and brick buildings from the colonial era line the street, discoloured with neglect but oozing beauty and charm- ignored by the people making their to and from work, or making a living under their shadows. These hawkers line both sides of the street, selling fruits, magazines or cooking delicious meals on hot embers and stoves.
It was under one of these magnificent buildings- now the corporate headquarters of a large conglomerate that I first discovered the chaiwalla. He sat behind a large aluminium pot filled with bubbling milk, flinging tea powder and sugar skilfully from where he sat. Soon I was a regular, and today was no different. The street was significantly less crowded, both from people and vehicles, but it was business as usual for all the hawkers. The chaiwalla sat with a transistor close to him, listening to the commentary of the semi-final match against Australia while pouring steaming hot tea into kulhads with rapid pace. He looked up at me and handed a cup immediately while he shouted “Ladies First” through a massive grin. “Dada, the score looks too huge for us to chase, you think we’ll win?” I asked in Hindi. The Aussie innings was nearing an end and it was a competitive score to say the least. “Of course!” he replied, “We have Dhoni & Virat, one of them will hit a century and India will win, you wait and watch!” I muttered “Let’s see” and left.
Hours later it was time for a second cup of tea. India had lost 8 wickets, and defeat was imminent. I went downstairs to be met by a very surly chaiwalla. He banged his chai vessel on the stove with a deafening clank, and screamed at a nearby customer to be patient for his turn. He didn’t look up when I asked for my tea, and simply placed the cup with a “thud” on the table near me. Excited shouts wafted from his transistor, and it was evident that India had lost the match. I took my cup and joined my colleague in the corner of the street. We sipped on our chai, watching people in heated discussions and op-eds about what lost us the match. Sadness and disappointment were the moods all around, with expressions of resignation- “we did come pretty far after all, and they tried hard”. Suddenly, a man who was standing near us looked at us and immediately went into a rapid and emotional monologue in Bengali on his disappointment while brandishing his beedi, with my colleague acknowledging with sympathetic noises. Once he was done, he walked away and my colleague and I exchanged amused glances.
This is cricket in India. It is the glue that can bring together our diverse people, spanning multiple languages, cuisines and cultures. But most importantly, it is the joy that lights up the lives of millions who barely earn a living performing mundane chores day in and day out, struggling to make ends meet and with just about enough to survive each day. It is the sole entertainment for those who cannot afford pretty things or vacations. Many have little else to look forward to in their lives but an Indian victory or a big knock from their favourite player.
And this is why the attitude of some of most “intellectual” and educated upsets me deeply. First we were subjected to Ashis Nandy’s bizarre explanation that India shouldn’t win the World Cup because it would reinforce already “too high” Nationalistic feelings. Then the popular Outlook magazine then ran a poll, seemingly seriously, asking people If India Should Win the World Cup? (Duh!) During the match itself, a popular comedienne tweeted that it really doesn’t matter if a homophobic country wins or loses ‘some silly’ game (What’s the connection?). And then of course there’s Times Now, running a hateful campaign against our Men in Blue after their loss, using the hashtag #ShamedInSydney.
The likes of Times Now, Ashis Nandy and their ilk need a wake-up call from their self-obsessed elitism. This isn’t about you, and never will be. You don’t represent the multitude of Indians for who cricket actually matters-so much. Hell, a huge cricket fan myself, I wouldn’t give me too much importance from a cricket perspective. I am part of a fortunate minority who can recover from a cricketing loss and find other things to look forward to in my life- like a nice dinner, drinks with friends or a fun weekend plan. Someone wishing loss to the Indian side is either highly delusional or incredibly selfish. And another who decides to call hate towards the side, a lot less gracious than the millions who will feel depressed for days while still ending their day with a prayer to their favourite cricketing idol.
One of my favourite authors of all time has to be Roald Dahl. It is no coincidence that he has other British authors for company in my list of favourites- Wodehouse & Gerard Durrell. His short stories for adults are deliciously dark, and his books for children have many layers to them that would delight most adults. Adding to his wonderful writing are the watercolour illustrations by Quentin Blake, bringing characters to life with his fluidic drawings.
“The BFG”, or The Big Friendly Giant is in my opinion among Roald Dahl’s best works. This is the story of a young orphan, Sophie, who gets frisked off by a Big Friendly Giant for spotting him at “witching hour” of a dark night, when he was going about his activity of blowing dreams into little kid’s windows as they slept. The BFG is the “runt” of the far-away Giant world, bullied by the other giants and the only one that didn’t eat up little kids as they slept, subsisting instead on the disgusting “snozzcumber”. The book follows Sophie’s adventure with The BFG, saving the world together from the other “human bean” (as the BFG calls it) eating giants.
Dahl has invented a number of scrumdiddlyumptious words in this book as part of our adorable BFG’s vocabulary, all of which have a wonderful ring to them. The BFG speaks with poor grammar and made-up words because he never had a chance to go to school, and sharply tells Sophie not to “gobblefunk around with words” when she tries to correct him. While many on the internet interpret “gobblefunk” to refer to Dahl’s imaginary language itself, it could also mean to mess around with words, or even be too nit-picky with them. Swizzfiggling, pigswiller, frobscottle, winksquiffler, phizzwizard and whizzpopping are only a few of Dahl’s lovely inventions, all of which are perfectly understandable in context. Our lovable giant also refers to Charles Dickens as “Dahl’s Chickens”, getting a chuckle out of the best of us.
I learned recently that DreamWorks has picked up the rights for the film which is due to be released in 2016. I can imagine it would be beautifully animated, what with the BFG’s huge collection of colourful airy jelly-like dreams lined up in thousands of glass jars, cottony pink dreams floating in giant land and beautifully coloured bubbles of dream-bits floating up BFG’s cave. This one’s going to be a golden phizzwizard!
Picture courtesy QuentinBlake.com
For the last few months, I have been based out of Ludhiana on a project. Although I can go home every other weekend, I decided the exercise isn’t worth it given a 10 hour journey and regular flight cancellations due to the heavy fog that has engulfed the North of India and holding on tightly. So I decided instead to take a 5 hour long train journey to Haridwar. I always had a great desire to see the Ganga, and this was probably the best time to do so due to low pilgrim footfall in winter. A tough few months also meant that a break was needed, and what better than one of the holiest places in India?
This trip marked the “first time” of many things. It would be the first time I would travel by a train by myself. It would also turn out to be the first time I would travel in a train ticket-less. It would be the first time I would bribe an officer to get a seat on said train.
The first time I explored a city alone all day. And that’s where things got exciting. I expected to be overwhelmed at the Ganga’s beauty and sheer enormity. Instead, I was met by the sight of large piles of wet clothes on the stairways, men wearing small nothings that were also soaking wet, children crying because their parents insisted on dipping them in the freezing waters (parents who would otherwise bundle them with so many clothes that they would run the risk of rolling away), sellers shouting out to buy their wares of plastic bottles filled with the holy water and garlands, and families having lunch picnics. I ambled around, soaking in all the sights and sounds, and soon found myself in the midst of small shrines which nestled marble statues of Radha & Krishna, Hanuman ji and Shiv lings. Each shrine had a pandit who called me over to take prasad. And this is when my experience turned refreshingly unexpected.
In the South, where I have done most of my temple visits, any hint that a 27 year old is single is followed by a blessing that she quickly finds a suitable husband. Not just temples- I have had playful arguments with my grandmother who would do the same, urging her to instead bless me to get a good job or grades. Married women are promptly greeted with a blessing that her husband outlives her, because of course.
But not by the Ganga. The pandits’ first reactions when I approached them was to politely enquire if someone would join me. After I would answer in the negative, they would proceed to chant mantras and guide me to make offerings of flowers and ganga-jal to the deities. When it was time to customize blessings, I was asked if I was married. Newly single and overcome with pain, I would pull myself together and say that I wasn’t, waiting for the familiar Sanskrit words urging God to find me a suitable boy to marry. But that’s not what I heard. I was asked to stretch out my right hand to have holy thread smeared with vermilion tied around my skinny wrist, because if I were married, the thread belonged on my left hand. Being a girl with a childish face, I was then asked if I was a student or a working professional. On answering, the pandits would recite a chant interjected with wishes that I progress well in my career and receive peace and prosperity.
The entire experience was a very refreshing one. My solitary spiritual experience was contrary to my expectation of one fraught with gender discrimination and judgment. And considering we were all by the Ganga, also made complete sense. This mighty river, revered as a Goddess, has single-handedly nurtured civilizations for centuries. She flows on, deep and silent, despite the many abuses she is subjected to. She needs no one, but without her, the millions of lives that depend on her would cease to exist.
What an irony it would be to tell a daughter of the land, standing besides the mighty Ganga, that she needs another for her well-being?
This post originally appeared on Indiafacts.com on October 10th, 2014 and can be read here
For the last few weeks we have been increasingly exposed to images of young girls in combat gear, barely in their teens, clutching on to outdated artillery. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons are battling it out against the ISIS (Islamic state in Iraq and Syria) in Kobane, a predominantly Kurdish city along the Syria and Turkey border. The city is surrounded by ISIS territory on all sides, and has almost miraculously resisted them for over 3 weeks on gritty will and remarkable courage by the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the armed forces of Syrian Kurdistan. With reports now indicating that the fights have spilled to the streets and the fall of the city imminent, thousands of Kurdish soldiers and an estimated 300,000 civilians are staring at the prospect of a gruesome massacre not unlike others the group has carried out. This is the first time, however, that it would be taking place after the announcement of the US led coalition that pledged to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.
ISIS probably touched its moral nadir last week when it beheaded Alan Henning, a British taxi driver-turned- humanitarian worker who had spent months in a street corner collecting funds for an ambulance. He had skipped Christmas with his family to help the children of war-torn Syria. But despite the fact that it is pretty clear that ISIS is the closest one can get to evil personified, I hope that the Indian government refrains from joining what I believe to be an unholy coalition and participating in air strikes against the group. Sadly, it has become increasingly evident that this coalition is a farce and is going to be largely ineffective. I explain why in the paragraphs that follow:
The Kurds are the only group fighting against ISISfor a seemingly just cause and against an existentialist threat, without itself posing a threat to humanity in the future- an aspect that, as history shows, Islamic militants have a very poor track record with. So far, they have also been the most effective group in fighting off ISIS, amid reports of defection by members of FSA(Free Syrian Army) and Al-Nusra (an Al-Qaeda branch) to ISIS. Basically farmers and breeders of livestock, the Kurds are fighting for democracy and a right to a homeland; a right to live in peace as part of a secular fabric- features that the West would normally extoll. Instead, the coalition has been reluctant to aid the YPG due to their alleged links to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party)- a banned left leaning Turkish organisation that had waged a guerrilla war against the Turkish government in the 1980s.
The YPG’s pleas to the international community for better arms and ammunition fall on deaf ears as they are surrounded by the most barbaric group of people in recent history. The Turkish army, the second largest one in NATO, is watching barely hundred metres away on the other side of the border as ISIS closes in on Kobane, allegedly moving its tankers only to strike a pose for the cameras of large international media houses. Turkey is also allegedly a buyer of ISIS oil, the group’s largest source of revenue. Its borders have been porous for ISIS to cross over, but tight when Kurdish fighters attempted to pass to help their kin.This is a good time to remind you that Turkey is an integral part of the US-led coalition against ISIS. Coalition airstrikes, although increased in regularity over the last two days, have been largely ineffective in keeping ISIS from entering the city of Kobane.
Let us now compare the Kurds to the group that the US-led coalition does support- the “moderate” FSA, or Free Syrian Army that was founded to fight the Assad regime. There have been several disturbing reports of defections from the group to ISIS, and one can only take guesses on the arsenal of arms they took with them. A Vice documentary on Syria following the FSAhas young militants promptly reply that an “Islamic State ruled by Shari’a laws” is what they aim for- but of course “one where their Christian brothers too would live in peace”, added as an afterthought presumably for the cameras. As award winning war reporter Aris Roussinos, who has spent a lot of time in Syria embedded with rebel groups recently tweeted, “Equally, FSA & SRF, while ostensibly secular, contain very many fighters committed to an Islamic state (in some form)”. The same Shari’a laws are oft quoted by ISIS to justify every one of their barbaric acts. Groups on both sides- ISIS and the Islamic rebels fighting them, chant chillingly identical cries of “Allah-u Akbar” after every shot they fire.
It is quite obvious that the coalition has picked the wrong side to support in its war against ISIS. The collective sincerity of the coalition is also highly questionable with Turkey in its midst- there is overwhelming evidence of the country’s back-door support to ISIS. For India to join this coalition and spend resources on it is at best a waste, and at worst, blood on its hands.
While joining the coalition is a bad move, there is very little justification for the lack of concern expressed at this growing threat to peace across the world by Indians. Mass genocide and a promise of more to come does not seem to have touched the sensitive bones of any political party in India. This is in stark contrast to the massive outrage by the Congress, even stalling parliamentary proceedings in July, demanding that India condemns the attack on Gaza, questioning if our foreign policy had changed with the new government. The CPI (Communist Party of India) held rallies in several parts of India, condemning Israel and burning effigies. The AAP in its inimitable style had held a candlelight vigil at Jantar Mantar in support of Palestinians, joined gleefully by self-proclaimed secularists and intellectuals. But of course, the Kurds and Yezidis are hardly a vote bank, are they?
However, what is truly distressing is a lack of empathy by civil society itself- educated Muslims who had flooded our social media timelines with images of Gaza, humanists who took to the streets wielding banners with messages of solidarity- all have maintained stoic silence while ISIS carries out systematic ethnic cleansing and murder of innocents. While tears were copiously shed for Gaza, there are none for the brave children and women defending their homelands in Syria. The loud and emotional discussions carried out for the cause of Palestinians have fallen silent for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Our collective hypocrisy as a society is alarming, and should be a cause for deep shame.
This post was originally written on January 27th 2013, in wake of the Delhi rape incident
A lot has been said, spoken, ranted and abused after the case of the horrific rape in Delhi recently. I have seethed in anger and frustration as I watched news reports of the incident, and was rocked with rage as I watched the barrage of insensitive, shameful and acutely distressing comments made by people of prominence in our country. There have been several articles and blogs about the incident and the social problem that plagues India, and I didn’t really feel the urge to pitch in myself. For one, I haven’t written much besides B-school essays over the last few years, and I didn’t think I had anything more intelligent to offer than what was already written so well by so many others. Yet, today I felt like putting pen down to paper although I have a million other things to do, mostly because of observations made off late.
A month ago, I moved to Singapore for my MBA. One statement that I heard ever so often by everyone who lived here and knew the city was that “Singapore is safe!” For someone moving out of home for the first time, this comment was of great comfort, and I now know after a month that it is completely true. Although Bangalore is relatively safe compared to the more notorious north India, the safety and feeling of liberation that I feel here is incredible. I have come home at midnight alone, using public transport on several occasions, and I have not felt unsafe even for a moment. Women here are dressed impeccably and appropriately to the hot and humid weather, and not once have I noticed a single man give her a looking-down.
I have the privilege of sharing a flat in Singapore with a single Singaporean male and a Singaporean couple. At this moment, I would like to add with sadness that it would’ve been unthinkable for me to live under the same roof with a strange Indian man. Moving on with my point- I have had the opportunity to observe the couple at close quarters, since I now consider them friends. Both of them are working professionals, and seem to have erratic work timings. In a country where it is not affordable to hire help to do the laundry and clean up, I watch with admiration and joy as they both share the housework seamlessly. They take turns doing the laundry, cooking, or buying home the dinner. It is simply a matter of convenience; the person who gets home earlier takes care of the housework. This is not what I have grown up watching in any Indian family I have known closely. I believe things are changing, but when they have, I have heard of mothers-in-law complaining that their sons are now being made to do housework.
What makes the society so different from ours? Why does India treat its women the way she does? (Isn’t it an irony our country is deemed to be of the feminine gender?) This question obviously isn’t an easy one to answer, and is probably due to extremely complex and deep-rooted issues that go back a long way. One observation I have to make, however, is that Indian men seem to have a fixation to associating all women to their mothers, sisters and sometimes, wives. How often did we hear references to mothers and sisters during the protest marches in Delhi? I don’t really have a problem with it, and really, if imagining all women as sisters and mothers is what prevents someone from committing a rape, then please do so by all means. What I would like Indian men to do, however, is regard women as fellow human beings, as an equal. Not someone who simply needs to be your sister or mother, but a person with the same aspirations as you have – of a career; of education and learning; of the same ambitions you have- money, peace and good health, even sexual needs. A sister and mother invoke feeling of compassion and protection- of a weak person who needs you. Women do not need anyone; they need respect and an equal chance.
I have often heard myself be called a feminist. I do not agree. There is certainly nothing wrong with being one, but calling me a feminist is akin to calling a man who does not rape a paragon of virtue. Just because something that is wrong is so commonplace, does not make it right. Seeking equality of gender is not feminism; it is simply demanding the right thing when status-quo is so wrong. It is time that every one of us do our bit- and do the right thing.
As I traveled back home today in Singapore’s incredibly efficient metro, I felt a pang of homesickness as I watched everyone around me staring into their iPhones, oblivious to the sea of humanity surrounding them. At that moment I realized that what I really missed was the great amount of human interaction that travelling in Bangalore involves – especially my hour long auto rides back home from work every day. Though Bangalore’s auto drivers have often been portrayed as villains meandering Bangalore’s streets, I have a very different opinion and recall my encounters with them rather fondly.
Every evening I hailed an auto in front of Forum in Koramangala, and residing in an obscure part of Bangalore meant that it wasn’t always easy to get a ride. One rainy, lovely day in Bangalore I was unsuccessful in getting an auto for over 20 minutes, when my auto in shining armour, driven by Karthik, stopped by and agreed to give me a ride home. Frustrated by then, I spewed my anger at his brotherhood and told him that they were all insensitive and cruel. He immediately turned around (ignoring the road in front as they so often do) and in Kannada told me, “Madam, if anyone in this auto stand ever refuses to drop you home when it is raining, just give me a call. I will make one call and you have somebody getting you home safely. My promise.” I never waited for an auto on another rainy day.
Some of my other encounters have been more amusing than touching. I remember being exhausted from a particularly hard day at work, and as it often does, my dark circles screamed out for attention. At the first signal we stopped at, the auto driver peered at me through the mirror and asked “Tired, Madam?” I replied in the affirmative. “What you need, madam, is a glass of juice” he replied, “and there is this place close by where you get very good juice, excellent” he continued. Before I could answer, he had made a sharp 90 degree turn into a by-lane, moving from the extreme right of the road to the extreme left, blissfully oblivious to all the vehicles behind screeching and swerving to avoid a collision. Shocked, I asked him where he was going. “This is where you get the juice” he said, calmly. I began to decline vehemently, saying I just wanted to get home. “But I’ll buy!” was his bewildered response as I sighed in resignation.
There are all kinds of autos on Bangalore’s streets. The most eye catching are the “disco” autos. Even if you’ve never been in one, you’ve probably seen it. Its interiors would make an LMFAO video pale in comparison, what with its dazzling rotating, blinking, dancing light changing from blue to red to green rapidly. Huge speakers adorn the back of the auto, belting out loudly tunes from the latest Puneeth Rajkumar or Darshan movie. One exceptional example of a ‘disco” auto was one that I saw was fitted with a large colour screen by the side of the auto. As I began to take in my jatang surroundings, the driver asked me if I wanted to listen to English, Hindi or Kannada music. Thoroughly fascinated by now, I said English. Next thing you know, I saw Enrique wooing his “Dirty Dancer” on the screen with spectacular sound quality, with all the lights obliging to the dancey beats. After some probing, he told me that his intention was to be different and make his passengers as happy as he could and didn’t mind the additional cost incurred if these purposes were met. As I got off, he told me proudly that his auto had been featured on a news channel and a Facebook page.
Perhaps my most bizarre auto ride was on a rainy day back home. Just as I settled in and began to slowly doze off, a shrill whistle jolted me awake-the kind of whistle that sent a shiver down your spine in school when the PT master blew it behind you. I sat up and looked around, to see one of those lethal sound instruments hanging loosely on the auto driver’s lips. Before I could open my mouth to ask what the hell he was doing, he began to blow at it vigorously, causing all the two wheeler riders to turn back startled, while they scurried to make way for us to pass. Some continued to stare after making way, amazed at what they were hearing. A few laughed uncontrollably, and I sat red faced and thoroughly embarrassed. Soon, the hilarity of the scene got to me as well and I chuckled and smiled at everyone who stared and pointed at the auto I now proudly occupied. Turns out, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the auto’s horn. My driver was simply of the belief that Bangalore’s roads needed much more than a horn, and told me with utmost conviction that in his auto, you won’t have to wait in a traffic jam for longer than 15 seconds. “Look at your watch, madam. Never. It will never happen. You see”. And sure enough, it didn’t.
These are just a few incidents that I will never forget. There was also the one who asked me riddles throughout the one hour journey, a Muslim driver who insisted on discussing Hindu philosophy with me, the one who told me shyly that he thinks I resemble Aishwarya Rai (slightly creepy, yes), the one who yelled over the din to tell my mother (who was at the time talking to me on the phone during a riot scare) that he promises to get her daughter home safely, the one who told me to “chill, madam..” when I told him I had no change to pay with…the list goes on.
Agreed not all of Bangalore’s auto drivers are beautiful souls. But that’s true of any set of people- the few bad ones give them all a lousy reputation. I choose to remember my Bengaluru’s auto drivers with fond memories- for giving me a much needed break from mundane office days, for giving me a dose of reality and grounding at the end of every day and for having enthusiastic conversations despite a long hard day of driving. And now, I look forward to visiting my favourite city and taking an auto ride very soon. Maybe even buy one of them a glass of juice!
After years of wanting to start a blog but having nothing to say, here I finally am. It isn’t the first time I’m “writing” though. I was a fairly good writer in school, which meant I topped the class thanks to ridiculously high scores in English and Kannada. This of course led to a false sense of confidence in my own intelligence, which got popped soon after I proceeded to join Engineering college where I did phenomenally badly. But back to school now- the essays I was forced to write in tests and exams would invariably land up in the school magazine, and I pretty certain the examiner of my Kannada board exam gave me near-full marks after wetting the paper with tears upon reading my extremely tragic essay. They weren’t bad, all these essays and stories I wrote. But I could only do so under compulsion- like in a time-bound exam, or a homework due the next morning.
As an adult who has begun to realize that it’s important to have a hobby and keep oneself occupied with pursuits that serve to distract from a miserable corporate existence, I have decided to start writing again, and hopefully the creative juices will oblige me with a steady flow. I have also reproduced a few older posts that I posted as “Notes” on my Facebook page, because I wanted people to read them. In the process, I am also illustrating my posts with my own doodles and peppering them with pictures I’ve taken on my travels.
I hope you all enjoy my writing, and will post your praise and disagreements in the comments. And of course, share what you like!