If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 26 December 2008

An Indian traveller in a Connecticut snowstorm

The forecast was categorical. A snowstorm will begin at 9 AM; likely to continue for eight hours; eight to ten inches of snow. Having lived in the tropics all my life, I found the prospect appealing. But like many people born long before the age of satellite imagery and supercomputers, I have an emotional problem about relying on weather forecasts. A wonderful Bengali author, Syed Mujtaba Ali once wrote: “The problem with weather forecasts is that it’s risky to ignore them; and the question of trusting them doesn’t arise!”

The weather forecast is amazingly accurate in the US of A in the twenty-first century. I have been here for over three months now, and I find that the weathermen hit the bull’s eye with metronomic monotony. There are even hourly forecasts for big cities. You can plan your day with precision and can almost set your watch looking at the sky.

So, when there was no sign of snow at nine in the morning, I felt a little cheated. The sky was overcast, but that was about all. Warning about the storm – they call it advisory here – was repeatedly broadcast over radio and TV and schools were given a day off. But otherwise, the day began normally that morning. Not surprising: people here don’t bunk office even for much weightier reasons like the election of Barack Obama.

One of our neighbours, an elderly woman, leaves for office at seven in the morning and returns home by three. As I went out to pick up the newspaper, I saw her going out. Instead of taking the car, she left on foot.

The sky turned dirty grey and snow arrived one hour later than scheduled. Specks of white started coming down from the sky at ten. Soon, rooftops, roads, porches, and patios were covered under a sheet of white. Visibility was low, cars and trucks switched on their fog lamps. Within an hour or so, the tiny specs of snow became heavy white blobs and the white sheet turned into a thick quilt. Snow collected on the leaves of coniferous trees and the denuded branches of other trees. Smaller trees and bushes bore the brunt of the aggression, just as poor people suffer most in times of calamities. The hedges that serve as boundaries between individual compounds were all under inches of snow and were bent down to the ground.

When my wife and I went out to a nearby eatery to have a coffee, we found the place doing business as usual. People drove in, bought their breakfast and left. After exchanging customary pleasantries with us, the girl at the counter said, ‘The roads are treacherous! Take care.’

I told her that the chips they serve is great. She asked me if they make potato chips in India.

We couldn’t but take care. The cold wind was cutting and the ground beneath our feet was treacherous indeed. No one was on the road, but scores of cars went past as usual.

Street lights were turned on as darkness descended by afternoon. The roads were slushy, almost undrivable. Soon, some trucks with snow ploughs arrived like knights in shining armour. They strutted about, pushing snow to the shoulders of the road, even as other vehicles crawled gingerly. Men and women of all ages came out with shovels to clear snow from their driveways.

Our elderly neighbour returned home plodding through knee-deep snow. It was just another day in office for her.

Salman Rushdie wrote, possibly in The Satanic Verses, it is difficult to be an American outside America and be loved. How true. From Hiroshima to Vietnam to Iraq, so many stupid and vicious US governments tried so hard to make Americans unpopular around the world.

But when one is in America, one cannot but respect Americans for some of their qualities. In India, hardworking people are exceptions. Here, they are the rule. And everyone does their work without fuss. Back home in Kolkata, I consider myself lucky if the newspaper is delivered by eight, although the paper is printed ten kilometres away from my house. The place where I stay now is eighty kilometres from New York, but New York Times is delivered at our doorsteps invariably by six thirty in pitch darkness, wrapped in a blue plastic packet. (Two packets when it rains.) On the night after the snowstorm, plough trucks worked through the night to clear the roads completely. No one was stuck in the morning.

Many things about the American society are different from ours. One of them is the respect for physical labour. A plumber or a postman or the men/women who cleared the roads that night enjoy a level of respect that is unthinkable for their counterparts in India. The mammoth that the USA is today did not become a mammoth for nothing. Much sacrifice and persistent hard work over centuries have gone into building this gigantic edifice.

Hard work … that is one trick we have missed.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Friday, 19 December 2008

The first rebel

Radha Ballabh Gope was an activist I met when I was quite young. He was responsible for the first political action of my life at the age of six. Tram and bus fares had just been raised in Calcutta and an agitation was on against the move. One day, I was on a tram with my parents. When the conductor approached my father for tickets, I stood up, clenched my fist, and shouted ‘Baarti bhara dicchina, debona!’ (We won’t pay the enhanced fare, never!)

Radha Ballabh was a thin, dark, elderly man who was always seen in coarse white khadi kurta and pyjama. He was possibly of medium height, but looked shorter as he had a slight stoop. His bald pate and round glasses reminded me of Gandhiji, whose framed autographed photo hung in my father’s study. He called my mother didi, although he was old enough to be her father. Ma called him Ballabhda, and so did we, my sister and me. We knew he was not actually related to ma, and we didn’t know how she came to know him.

Ballabhda came to our house every week. He would deliver a periodical named Ganabarta, the mouthpiece of the RSP – the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The paper consisted of eight pages of convoluted Bengali printed in a primitive letterpress. Its masthead was corrupted by thin irregular white lines; possibly an ancient wooden block was used to print it. No one read Ganabarta in our house, except me. And I too did not understand a word of it primarily because Ballabhda died and the supply of the paper stopped before I was ten. Apart from his connection with the political mouthpiece, my sister and I knew nothing about him. We didn’t know where he lived or what he did for a living. But we loved him all the same, with the kind of unconditional and unquestioned affection that only children are capable of.

Ma would offer Ballabhda tea and snacks. He talked and laughed heartily as he drank tea. Evidently, ma attended to this simple, unassuming man with great respect. When she was not around, my sister and I assumed the host’s role. Never pressed for time, Ballabhda talked at length about why prices went up, why one shouldn’t pay the enhanced tram fares, why the poor people were poor, and how unjust Lord Rama had been towards his wife. He treated us as human beings, not as children. And I found in him a friend who could be trusted. Another thing that set him apart was his lively, childlike laughter. I am yet to meet another grown-up who can laugh as innocently.

We were not rich, but my father somehow found a big house for us. It was in the 1950s, the capricious times not long after the partition of India. Some relatives uprooted from what was then East Pakistan came and stayed with us from time to time. Besides, there were others who drifted around and found temporary shelter in our house, which had the smell of impermanence one comes across in railway waiting rooms. Although we were a family of four, I do not remember a day when there were only four of us around the dining table for supper. All our relatives and visitors treated Ballabhda with a special kind of respect. Even at that age of innocence, I knew that people respected him not for what he had, but because he didn’t have anything.

In those days, money had not become the common currency for all human exchanges. Greed was not the force behind every human endeavour. The roads of the city were much cleaner. Instead of the fumes from motor vehicles, clouds of a vague chemical called idealism used to hang in the air. And people like Ballabhda were perhaps inevitable signatures of the time.

The last time when I saw him, Ballabhda was leading a small procession of about fifty men, protesting against something. It was one of those processions one came across in Calcutta roads every other day. A few days later, we read a four-line obituary in a Bangla daily announcing the death of Radha Ballabh Gope, a former freedom fighter who had spent many years of his life in British jails.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


Diwali offered a long weekend that year. Early in the morning the day before, we boarded the only passenger train that goes from Visag to Kirandul, the centre of the iron ore mines in Bailadila. Some of the loveliest places on the Eastern Ghats are en route: Aruku Valley, Borra Guhalu, Mahendragiri and Semiliguda, which was, perhaps still is the highest broad gauge rail station in India.

Iron ore was discovered in the Bailadila range around the year 1900 by a geologist, P. N. Bose. It took another 55 years and a Japanese to rediscover the deposits for commercial mining. Professor Euemura drew the attention of the Japanese Steel Mills Association to these deposits after studying the old records of the Geological Survey of India. The railway track from Kirandul to Visag was laid in the late 1960s to facilitate export of iron ore to Japan. Mostly goods trains run on the line. The passenger train is a collateral benefit.

As I gazed at an endless train carrying haematite in roofless wagons coming from the opposite direction, I wondered how the Japanese could import ore from such a distant place and manage to sell us back finished steel at a price lower than what it costs in India. But soon, the enormous beauty of the hills drove away economics from my head.

As the train chugged on, the distant misty hills seen on the horizon came closer and Mother Nature revealed herself in all her riveting glory. The hills were densely covered by tall saal and other trees that were perhaps centuries old. The sun rose in the clear November sky and smiled on the lush green forest as we went through scores of tunnels that burrow through the hills. Thin, chiselled tribal men with bundles, and women with children on their backs got on and off the train. Where were they going? What lay at the end of their journey?

We reached Jagdalpur, the district town of Bastar, as the sun was going down. We gave the name of our hotel to a rickshaw puller and asked him how much he would charge. The wiry man looked at the ground and said, ‘Do rupaiah.’

Two rupees was a small amount even in 1986; no self-respecting rickshaw puller anywhere else would take two adults and two children and their luggage for such a pittance. Perhaps this little economic fact (we can’t run away from economics, can we?) indicated the centuries of exploitation that our tribal people have been suffering at the hands of people like yours truly. The adivasis here are poor, even by Indian standards, and marginalized. As late as in 1966, Maharaja Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, the erstwhile king of the principality of Bastar revolted against the Union of India for the rights of his tribal subjects. The maharaja was killed by police on 25 March 1966 in his palace. He took in 13 bullets. And “scores, if not hundreds” of tribals got killed trying to defend their former ruler. Even as I write this in 2008, in the adjacent Dantewada district, tribals are being dislodged from their homes by police and a government backed militia called Salwa Julum, so that steel plants by Tatas and Essar can come up there.

A clean and unpolluted small town, Jagdalpur had a few people and vehicles on its dimly lit roads. We had our supper at the hotel’s dining hall in dim light; the voltage was low. The power went off while we were eating.

The next morning we left for the Chitrakoot Waterfall, 38 kilometres away. Our bus went through arid plains with little vegetation and cultivation, and no hills on the horizon. After some time, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. The conductor declared we were in Chitrakoot. We got off, although we knew that we had come to a wrong place. Where was the hill from which water would cascade down?

Besides, there was nothing around to suggest that we were in the vicinity of the biggest waterfall in the country. No restaurants, no shops selling useless “souvenirs”, no tourist taxis, not even a cycle rickshaw. The tourism infrastructure of the place was limited to a ramshackle teashop with bamboo posts and a thatched roof, and a few wooden benches. The establishment was run by a thin, haggard looking Bengali, a former refugee from East Bengal who had been “rehabilitated” in Dandakaranya in early 1950s. ‘You have come to the right place,’ he assured us, ‘Walk a mile that way, you will find the waterfall. It rained last night; you’ll see a lot of water.’

We trudged through the barren plain, with nothing but small shrubs and trees on the distant horizon, but we still couldn’t figure out how that path could possibly take us to a waterfall. Then we heard water roaring at a distance.

Millennia ago, as the river Indravati was meandering along the rocky earth of Dandakaranya, she encountered soft soil at Chitrakoot. The flowing water eroded the soft soil, creating a waterfall. When we reached the river, we found ourselves at the top of the cataract. Water was gushing down hundred metres below, off a semicircular edge. The Chitrakoot waterfall is like her rich North American cousin, the Niagara, although much smaller. But unlike in the Niagara, the place was not burdened with concrete. Nature was at her pristine best.

That was the day of Diwali. Our seven-year-old son was worried that we might not find firecrackers in a remote place like Jagdalpur. But we were surprised to see the range that was available in the local bazaar teeming with holiday shoppers. And sweets were sold by the tonne. Sweetmeat shops had extended themselves halfway into the roads.

Come evening, the sleepy, dimly lit town of the previous day was transformed into a gorgeous theatre of light and sound. The entire population was on roads and it seemed one big family was celebrating Diwali together. Crackers burst, rockets whooshed, Catherine wheels spun thousands of golden suns on the ground ... Late in the evening, when stocks of crackers dwindled, women came out in colourful dresses, young ones in salwar-kameez, and married women with heads covered with the end of their saris. Each one of them carried a plateful of sweets covered under a piece of embroidered cloth for their friends and relatives. We were not left out either. The hotel owner sent us a plateful.

The next morning, we had to catch a bus at five. I left the hotel in total darkness and woke up an adivasi rickshaw puller who was crumpled up like a shrimp in his rickshaw. When I told him that we had to go to the bus stop, he jumped off his rickshaw, wide awake. I told him there were four of us and asked him how much he would charge.

He said, ‘Do rupaiah.’

Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia
Trumbull, Connecticut / 8 December 2008

Friday, 5 December 2008

Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan

A redeeming feature about the terror attack in Mumbai, if there can be one, was the professional competence of the NSG commandos. Not everything is lost. And what was heartwarming was how some ordinary people responded to the crisis with selfless courage, even putting their own lives at risk. I am sure you have read many of these stories, but let me have the honour of mentioning some of these heroes on my blog.

On 30th November, the Times of India reported the story of Vishnu Datta Ram Zende. On 2nd of December, New York Times / International Herald Tribune reported about him and a few others.

Thirty-seven year old Vishnu Datta Ram Zende, a Central Railway employee at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminal, announces arrivals and departures of trains. On 26th November, he heard a loud explosion just before 10 P.M. and saw people running in panic. He gripped a microphone and calmly directed the panicked crowd toward the safest exit. He announced which way they should go, alternately in Marathi and Hindi, “barely stopping to take a breath until the platform was cleared.” The gunmen soon located his announcement booth and fired, but fortunately, Zende was not hurt.

At the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, a chef, Nitin Minocha “was on duty at the Golden Dragon restaurant when gunmen stormed the hotel lobby. He cracked open the door, saw the commotion and promptly closed it. He and his fellow workers escorted diners” into less accessible private club rooms. They hid more than 200 diners there.

“Well before dawn, security officers instructed that guests leave in groups of four. The hotel staff lined up, as though in a chain. Some people got out. Others did not. Bullets suddenly came in a burst. That is when Mr. Minocha was hit twice in the forearm.” During the attack, six employees were killed and another was critically injured.

“At another hotel, the Oberoi, staff members ushered restaurant diners into the kitchen and out the door; at that hotel, 10 employees were among the dead.”

Do you remember the old Mohammed Rafi-Geeta Dutt song, a line from which I have used as the heading of this post? At some point, the song goes like this:
Milta hai yanh sab kuch,
Ek milta nahi dil.
Clearly, the lyricist, S. H. Bihari went overboard there. There is no shortage of empathy in the city of Mumbai.

You can read the entire NYT/IHT report "For heroes in Mumbai, Terror was a call to action" if you click on this link.

And here is the story on Vishnu Datta Ram Zende in the Times of India.

Trumbull, Connecticut / 4 December 2008

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Terror in Mumbai

The first time when I couldn’t sleep for something that didn’t concern me personally was in the night of 14 March 2007, after the carnage in Nandigram. … How could an elected government, which was supposed to protect ordinary people, kill, maim and rape them in a pre-planned, systematic manner?

A few days ago, as the horrors of the Mumbai terror attack sank in, I couldn’t sleep. On the night of 26/27 November, ten young men armed with modern killing devices attacked the populace of this wonderful city, killed 175 people, and injured 295. And the death toll will rise. But numbers reveal little. They don’t tell us about the emptiness of an orphaned child, the vulnerability of a widowed woman, or an old man who has lost his only son.

The most graphic description of the terror that I have read so far is from a private source. A friend from Mumbai forwarded an email from someone working in the Times of India Building:
“It's not every day that you hear gunshots and grenades going off outside your office at 10 PM. It was a scene straight out of a disaster flick … hordes of people running for their lives … some crawling on the road. Piqued curiosity takes me to the windows facing CST (Chhatrapati Sivaji Terminal) … as I pull the blinds away, I see two boys with black backpacks ... walking down the deserted station as if on a stroll in a park … before my numb nerve-endings could react to the sight, the kids turn to us … and open fire … sparks flying off their guns … the cold arrogant sense of victory in their walk will remain etched on my mind forever …

“5 hours later, I was standing under the same metal-detector that the boys were standing under … the deathly silence that had descended upon the building bore testimony to the massacre … so many lives changed irrevocably … mine is too perhaps, as the train dopplered away from CST, I thanked god … I was alive.”

The carnage was the latest one in a long series of insane acts. According to Los Angeles Times, "2,300 people died in 2007 in attacks by various groups in India, making it perhaps the country most affected by terrorism in the world." After every attack, the Press conducts autopsies. From what has been unearthed so far, the incompetence of some government agencies is as shocking as the cockiness of the terrorists. Can it be true that a government that can send a probe to the moon can’t find guns with telescopic sights for the anti-terror policemen in Mumbai?

I wish after every terrorist attack, the Press also asked how many innocents have been arrested and tortured by police. Besides our duty to preserve human dignity, these boys will have a good reason to become real terrorists in future.

But should we ask questions related to the security apparatus alone?

In Nandigram, the criminals were identifiable. But it is not so in terror attacks. They operate at three levels: the masterminds, who are virtually unknowable, the foot soldiers, who pull the trigger, detonate the bombs, and the people who offer them shelter. The home-grown terrorists are mostly disaffected young men from underprivileged sections, with no job, nothing to look forward to. As Barack Obama writes in his inimitable prose:
“I know, I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way it does the lives of children on Chicago’s South Side, how narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammelled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair.”

It is precisely this powerless young who is a prime potential recruit of terror groups. Can we do something about him? Our caste-based reservation system has two serious flaws: (a) it leaves out many groups who deserve the support and (b) it ignores the family income of the potential beneficiary. We must demand that the government replaces this system with real affirmative action for all underprivileged people. It won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.

Individually, we can do very little, but very little is better than nothing. Can those of us who can, help one such person, bring one of them from the brink of an abyss, and offer him or her an opportunity of a respectable life? If I am not capable of doing so alone, can I join together with a few friends and do so?

A friend and his wife have been supporting the higher education of a student, who they didn’t even know. These days, if you throw a stone in a Bangalore or Hyderabad mall, it will hit someone who earns over 50 thousand a month. How many of them help the underprivileged? Long ago, I read in Hindustan Times that Mr. Nandan Nilekani, the Infosys CEO, sets aside a fixed amount every month for charity. How many of his colleagues follow his example?

Another thing that we ought to do is to cleanse ourselves of prejudice. Let not the word “Muslim” precede “terrorist” every time non-Muslims use the term. A terrorist belongs to only one community. The colonel and the fake sadhu, who finance bombing mosques, are brothers of the terror masterminds who reportedly live in plush bungalows in Karachi. And let’s call the men who burn Christian homes in Orissa, terrorists too. Let’s hope the law catches up with them just as it catches up with the accomplices and the brains behind the mass killers of Mumbai.

Trumbull, Connecticut
Monday, 01 December 2008