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

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A book, a film, and a man

“Part of a reader’s job is to explore why some writers endure.” Francine Prose

The book

Truman Capote was a writer of exquisite style and subtlety. After reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Norman Mailer said Capote was “the most perfect writer of my generation” adding that he “would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's.”

Breakfast at Tiffany's was critically acclaimed, but Truman Capote achieved fame, money, and international acclaim upon publication of his seventh book, In cold blood in 1965. The inspiration for writing the book was unusual.

On a moonlit night in November 1959, a wealthy farmer and three of his family were murdered by unknown assailants in a remote farmhouse in rural Kansas. Two men, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were arrested in December at Las Vegas and by January 1960, the case was solved. The accused were sentenced to death swiftly by a local court.

During the next four years Truman Capote stayed in Kansas on and off and talked extensively with the local FBI agent, Alvin Dewy, the killers, and everyone even remotely connected to the victims or their killers. He went to extraordinary lengths to gather “material”, including bribing jail wardens to meet Smith and Hickock. His childhood friend, Harper Lee, author of To kill a mockingbird, assisted him in the research.

The result of all this was In cold blood, a 343-page book that describes the crime, the lives of the victims and the killers, and the social milieu around them. The work, which Capote claimed to be the first of a new genre – the nonfiction novel, apparently combined the authenticity of reportage with the lucidity of fiction.

Some minor details of the book have been disputed. But the eminent readability of the book is beyond dispute. It is a whodunit where the readers know who did it, right from the first page. Yet, it is difficult to lay the book down. That shows Truman Capote’s mastery over story-telling.

The film

Capote had developed a kind of emotional relationship with one of the accused, Perry Smith. Capote and Smith had similar childhood experiences: fathers without steady occupations and alcoholic, unloving mothers. Capote was brought up by cousins and Smith suffered the horrors of charitable homes. They were both men from the margins of the American society who tried to overcome their odds, albeit in very dissimilar ways.

The research leading to the book and the “friendship” between the two men was the subject of the 2005 film Capote (based on a biography by Gerald Clarke). Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Academy Award for his brilliant portrayal of the title role in the film.

The film narrates how a gritty Capote spent four years of his life on the investigation, although for quite some time, he was unsure if the facts would coalesce into a cohesive story good enough for his purpose. He helped the accused to find better lawyers and partly because of his efforts, their execution was stayed five times.

As the trial dragged on, Capote met Perry Smith again and again to hear from him “what exactly happened that night”. Capote was committed to unravel the tangled threads of the story. He also knew that his work would remain incomplete without Perry’s final confession. He cheated Perry, didn’t reveal his personal interest in prolonging the trial. In fact, he lied through his teeth to tell Perry that he hadn’t even decided about the book’s title whereas, in reality, he had read excerpts from its first three chapters to a packed auditorium in New York!

For a long time, Perry refused to reveal the details. But ultimately, he gave in. And Capote immediately withdrew his hand of friendship.

But Truman Capote did not play the dangerous game without paying a price. The film shows him going into depression, almost on the verge of destruction. He recovered, thanks largely to the ministration of Harper Lee, and was present at the time of hanging of Perry and Dick, to honour their last wish.

In the end, the film notes that Truman Capote did not complete another full length book after In cold blood, and in the epigraph of his last, incomplete work, he quoted Mother Teresa: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”

The man

As one goes to bed after a late night viewing of the film, one feels that Truman Capote was as much punished as Perry Smith was. But do facts bear testimony to the feeling?

Although the case against Perry, who pulled the trigger at all the victims, was watertight, there were serious question marks on the sentence to hang him. Perry’s sanity was questioned through the initial trial and subsequent appeals, as Capote himself noted in his book. A British art critic Kenneth Tynan even implied that Capote wanted the accused to be hanged so that the book would have an effective ending.

Truman Capote, a five feet three inches (160 cm), openly homosexual man from humble origins, was a relentless – and possibly unabashed – social climber. He befriended the rich and the powerful, including business tycoons and Hollywood celebrities.

He was prone to self-publicizing (how many successful men aren’t?) and would bend truth to achieve his purpose. He claimed to intimately know people he had in fact never met, such as Greta Garbo. He accused the people, who questioned his intellectual honesty, of jealousy.

In the years following In Cold Blood, he wrote little and continued living an extravagant life among the glitterati. But he also continued to work on what was expected to be his next major novel: Answered prayers, on the private lives of the jet set.

Publication of the second chapter of the novel in a magazine in 1975 outraged many, because it was a thinly veiled story of the dysfunctional personal lives of a couple, who were his intimate friends. The rich and famous feared more such exposes of their glamorous but often sick lifestyle and they did what Perry and Dick couldn’t. They shut the doors on Capote’s face.

That was a setback from which Capote never quite recovered. Answered prayers remained incomplete and he died in 1984 – before reaching sixty – with a malfunctioning liver and other conditions related to substance abuse.

Returning to the epigraph of this article, Truman Capote has endured for over half a century. I believe he is going to be around for “a few more weeks” not only because of his flair for prose, but also because when he tells a story, he takes his reader deep into the minds of his characters. The reader becomes fictionalized, they become the characters they are reading about.

Kolkata, September 08, 2009

Sunday, 20 December 2009

A rail coach in darkness

That winter afternoon, the sky had decided to put on a golden make-up. Some time after crossing the Dhanbad junction, a passenger train disgorged me at an unremarkable station and left slowly, almost with a touch of reluctance. The people who got off with me melted into the wheat fields around; I stood on an empty uncovered platform under a yellow sun and a sparkling sky, with my shadow as the only companion. There was a nip in the air; time hung lazily over the horizon like an invisible mist.

I was at college then, eighteen or nineteen years of age. From the station at Kodarma, a small mining township in Bihar, I would go to a nondescript place nearby. My friend, Anirban Mitra lived there, with his parents and a small sister. His father was the station master there. Anirban had told me that the place was a remote outpost of the Indian Railways and there was nothing there, except the rail station, jungles, and a slender river. Only one passenger train stopped there in the morning. In the evening, a railway engine from Kodarma transported railwaymen working night-shifts to different stations along the route.

The engine was ready to start. Several people stood on its side and rear, holding on to brass handrails. I was excited by the prospect of travelling on a railway engine, but it was not to be.

The engine driver had an unpleasant message for me: ‘Mitra saab’s little daughter has fallen seriously ill. She has been admitted to the Railway Hospital at Dhanbad. The entire family have gone there with her. Haven’t you received the telegram?’

A return train was expected much later. Darkness descended quickly and an icy wind blowing in from the Himalayas forced me into the waiting room. As I settled myself in a long reclining chair smelling of the British Raj, I watched darkness and silence through window panes. It seemed I was the only living being in that station.

The ancient, dimly lit waiting room was eager to tell her tales. … I heard the bangles of a newly wed girl tinkling with dreams and anxiety; felt the utterly hopeless mute fear of a lost child; … the happy footsteps of a husband coming home after years.

‘Waiting for the train to Dhanbad?’ A young man interrupted my musing.

‘Yes, I am.’

‘It’s delayed. Not expected before eleven.’

The stranger, Sunil, was in early twenties, with a slim athletic body and a weather-beaten unshaven face. He looked tired. With a warm smile, he introduced himself as a prospector. The unusual profession surprised me. Hadn’t prospectors – who always wore broad rimmed hats – belonged to an extinct tribe that lived long ago in Africa, Australia, or Alaska, and whose stories have been told by Rider Haggard, Jack London, and our own Bibhuti Bhushan?

Sunil explained that he was into mica mining, which was not very different from gambling. One had to take a tract on lease and start digging. If one was lucky, one would come across a large chunk of mica and become an instant millionaire. But millionaires were in short supply, most of the adventurers ended up paupers. Sunil, a colliery owner's son, too had lost a large part of his inheritance in the quest, but was confident to hit the jackpot some day.

We went to a roadside eatery for our supper. Sunil was a frugal eater: he ate just two rotis and daal and didn’t drink tea. We talked and exchanged addresses. Sunil had lost his parents long before in a car crash near Hazaribagh, and had been brought up by his grandma. By the time we finished supper, we became good friends. We were in that magic phase of life when people naturally trust others and when complete strangers can become friends in half an hour.

As we were returning, a train had just arrived from Dhanbad. Some people were coming out through the narrow exit of the station. Sunil said, 'Let's go back to the tea shop.'

'Why? We've just had our food.'

'Nothing, I just feel like having tea. Surely, you can have another cup?'

Sunil insisted that he pay for the tea this time. When we returned to the station, the waiting room was quiet again. I dozed off. I don’t know how long I slept, I was suddenly woken up by a big commotion: the deserted station had been filled chock-a-block by a milling crowd, animatedly discussing something. I thought I was dreaming; how could there be so many people in such a sleepy station so late in the evening? But it was real. The magical transformation had come about because a circus show had just ended nearby. These were the spectators on their way home.

When a passenger train arrived, a real-life circus performance began. The compartments were full and all the doors were secured from within. The men on the train were not bothered about their unfortunate brethren outside, and refused to let them in. The people on the platform banged doors, tried to prise open windows and made full use of their lung-power. The colourful vocabulary of Hindi four-letter words flowed at its charming best. The folk returning from the circus were no mean gymnasts themselves. Every time the train started, a smart young man would jump on to a buffer and pull the brake lever jutting out at the end of the compartment. They seemed pretty sure-footed upon the buffers and about the intricacies of railway engineering. After a while, a few doors were opened and a surprisingly large number went in. Many others hung on to the foot-boards and buffers ignoring the freezing cold. The train chugged out.

Two more trains arrived and left in the same fashion, and everyone, barring a few old or infirm people like yours truly, managed to leave. By then, the station had been enveloped in a dense fog and no other train was scheduled that night.

Sunil and I walked briskly on the platform to keep ourselves warm. Clattering teeth ruled out a chat. For the first time in my adult life, I prayed to God for a minor miracle. Soon God appeared from out of the fog in the shape of a railway porter wrapped in a ghostly blue blanket. Pointing at a rail coach in darkness some distance away, He said that the dabba would be hitched to the first train leaving towards Dhanbad early next morning.

We thanked the porter God and ran. I climbed on to the pitch-dark compartment first, eager to stretch myself on an empty bunk. But I stumbled on something and fell headlong. Fortunately, I fell on something soft. Soon, it dawned on me that I was lying on a couple of sleeping humans. The compartment was packed like a tin of sardines! There was not an inch of vacant space and the air was thick with the smell of bidi smoke and snoring. But no one minded our intrusion. Sleeping bodies were moved willingly to make room, and somehow, room was made.

When I woke up, it was morning and we were at Dhanbad. Sunil was gone and my purse was empty, except for some small change. There was also a chit of paper with a hastily scribbled note.

“Dear Arun,

I am sorry to do this to you. I had no choice. I told you the first part of my story, which was true. But I didn't tell you that I am a fugitive, on the run from my creditors, who have links with Dhanbad coal Mafia. I will be beaten to pulp if I am caught. So I must run. And in order to run, I must eat. The rupee that I paid for the tea was the last I had on me.

The address I have given you is genuine. My granny still lives there, and cries. The Mafia won’t go to the police, but you can, if you wish. I am at your mercy. But I trust in God, I will come out of the mess that has been created by me and me alone. And I will keep your address carefully. I will pay you back, my friend, some day.”

Shortly after I returned from the trip, my father was transferred out and our family moved to Bombay. So I would never know if Sunil ever came out of his self-created mess.

Trumbull / July 2009

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A place of pilgrimage

We got off an auto-rickshaw when the sun was going down. The auto driver cheated us quite ruthlessly. As we approached the main entrance, we found a symbolic policeman with a short-barrelled gun looking wistfully at the light Sunday-evening traffic in the dusky light. There were no metal detectors; no one frisked us as we entered the campus. The peaceful ambience was apt because we were at Sabarmati Ashram where, “rooted in the soil and the sun and people of India, Gandhi grew to full stature as the leader of his nation.”

Gandhi – not Mahatma yet – founded the ashram on 17 June 1917 “at Sabarmati, across the Sabarmati River from the city of Ahmedabad”, wrote Louis Fischer in The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Presently, it is within the inner circle of the bustling city. The ashram consists of rudimentary white-washed cottages with tiled roofs, the only exception being the Gandhi Museum, a later addition. Even this modern structure has just one floor and sloping roofs, and blends beautifully with the rest of the campus.

After his final return from South Africa in 1915, Gandhiji set up an ashram elsewhere. He shifted it to Sabarmati because “he wanted to do some experiments in living, e.g., farming, animal husbandry, cow breeding, Khadi and related constructive activities, for which he was in search of this kind of barren land.” At the Ashram, “Gandhi formed a school that focused on manual labour, agriculture, and literacy to advance his efforts for self-sufficiency.” [Source: The Ashram website].

Lous Fischer wrote: “The population of the settlement fluctuated from 2o at the start to a maximum of 230. they tended the fruit trees, planted grain, spun, wove, studied and taught in surrounding villages. … The ashram, in fact, became the navel of India.”

Except for the time spent in prison, Gandhiji lived here in a small room in a cottage, Hridaya Kunj, for fourteen years from 1917 to 1930. A door form the room leads to an open verandah where he worked in the day and “slept even in the coldest nights.” The cottage is near the edge of the river. From there, the bank slopes down steeply into the riverbed. (In late November, the riverbed was almost dry. But it was free from garbage, unlike riverbanks in many Indian cities.) Gandhi used to hold prayer meetings on the open ground between the cottage and the river. As I stood there and looked at the quiet cloudless evening sky, I tried to hear a soft but resolute voice that reached out from here to three hundred million people across India, and tried to see a slender man with a slight stoop who was thought to be an incarnation of Vishnu from the Bihar plains to the hills of Malabar, as noted by Satinath Bhaduri (Dhonrai Charit Manas) and Raja Rao (Kantapura).

Being a regular and avid visitor of temples, Arundhati wanted to contribute something to the ashram. (A cousin too had asked us to, on his behalf.) As we looked round, we found a rusty offertory box on one of the walls of Hridaya Kunj. But a functionary of the Ashram, Kishore Bhai said it was rarely opened. If we wanted to contribute, we could hand over the cash to him and get a receipt.

We did. Kishore Bhai said, ‘The Ashram gets no grant from the state or central government, although the central government has given us funds from time to time for special purposes. And we don’t appeal to anyone for funds. We are happy to accept whatever people give us on their own.’

‘Then how do you run this place?’

‘A fund was set up during Gandhiji’s lifetime. The cotton mill owners of Ahmedabad contributed. The mill workers too donated a day’s salary. All our expenses are met from the interest earned on that fund.’

‘What kind of activities do you have here?’

‘Nothing, except running the Ashram.’

Intrigued by the apparent absence of any activity in the Ashram, I visited the Sabarmati Ashram website later. The Ashram is involved in preserving the history of Gandhi and the freedom struggle and educating people in his teachings. It does not directly participate in any social work, but manages several trusts that run a school, a hostel for Harijan women, and a Primary Teachers’ Training Institute. They promote village industries and run a training institute in spinning-weaving, solar energy, and bio-gas etc. They also run an Environmental Sanitation Institute that conducts research and training in rural health and sanitation; Another trust under Sabarmati Ashram manages cow pens in Bidaj and Lali villages. Besides, they have an organization dedicated to removal of untouchability.

It is heartening that Sabarmati Ashram continues work on the Gandhian path without depending on Government grants. (In Bengal, we have seen what government control can do to a centre of learning, in the case of Visva-Bharati, the school set up by Tagore.) However, it is sad that these activities have neither spread nor reached any depth that would stand out as an example for the rest of the country. A comparison with the Milk Cooperative movement of Gujarat comes to mind.

Also, there is perhaps some symbolism in the fact that none of these activities happen at the Ashram, like it used to, in the time of Gandhi. It seems Sabarmati ashram has ceased to be a nerve-centre of constructive work and has been turned into another place of pilgrimage, just as Gandhi the doer has been forgotten and turned into a deity.

Whenever the countless crooks of this country count their ill-gotten darker-than-black money, the Mahatma smiles his benign toothless smile at them from the currency notes they are counting. One hopes that that is not how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi will be remembered by Indians.

Kolkata, Sunday, 13 December 2009

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

An old tale retold

Long ago, there lived a young king, noble and wise. There was peace and prosperity in his land. On his twenty-fifth birthday, there was much celebration in the kingdom. Houses were decorated with red and blue streamers and yellow pennants. Children came out in colourful clothes and danced on streets. There was a huge community dinner for all.

But amidst all the festivities, the king looked sad and depressed.

‘Your Excellency! What makes you sad on such a happy day?’ asked the prime minister.

‘I am twenty-five today, but I am as ignorant as the mice in the royal kitchen. I know nothing except what lies before my eyes. When I was a child, I never studied. I spent all my time on the saddle of a horse. And that I regret now.’

‘But your Excellency, you are a great king. You protect the innocent and punish the guilty. People are happy. Our granaries are full, and prisons, almost empty. Last year, during the worst drought in living memory, you reduced taxes and gave away grain to the poor. Elders bless you every day, and the young look towards you for inspiration. You know everything that a king ought to. You needn’t learn anything more.’

‘No! I must study history. In fact, I must learn more. I want to study everything about the human race: how they came to be, how they started living together, how they invented the wheel and the fire. Everything! Please make a summary of all the knowledge of the world, so that I may read it.’

The minister knew his master. When the king set his mind on something, he would see it till the end. So he said, ‘Your Excellency! Your wish is my command. I will engage many scholars to write down everything that is there to be studied. I will send writers far and wide to copy every written word that is found.’

Days passed, years rolled by. On the fiftieth birthday of the king, three bullock carts came and stopped at the golden gate of the royal palace. They were loaded with fat books. The prime minister said, ‘Noble King! These three cartfuls of books contain all the knowledge about mankind.’

‘You have carried out my instruction, and I am indeed happy’, said the king, ‘but I have no time to read so many books. Please summarise them, so that I can read them.’

Another twenty-five years passed. On the seventy-fifth birthday of the king, as musicians played the drums and dancers danced in court, three porters arrived at the palace. They carried on their heads three baskets, full of books.

The king said, ‘My eyes are dimmer now. And I am too scared to go for a cataract surgery. I can't read so many books. Please make another summary of them. And bring the summary to me.’

Twenty-five years later, on the hundredth birthday of the king, there were no celebrations. Alas! The noble king was on his deathbed. The queen and the royal physician, an ancient man with a big turban and a long white beard, were by his side. The prime minister walked in with three leather-bound books and said, ‘Your Excellency, I have never failed to carry out your orders. These three books contain the essence of all human knowledge.’

The king replied, ‘I won't live for more than a few days … maybe, a few hours. How can I read three books now? But I wouldn’t die in peace unless I knew everything about human beings.’

Then the royal physician rose slowly and bowed to the king. Said he, ‘Your Excellency, you needn’t read these books, I will tell you everything about human beings.’ After clearing his throat, the old man continued, ‘Humans are born, they give birth to children, and they die.’

[My father, who was a fine story-teller, told this tale when I was small. You will perhaps agree that the story has all the flavours of the Panchatantra and other age-old fables. I have neither read this story anywhere, nor heard it from anyone else. If you came across this story earlier, please let me know. It would be great if you can tell me about its origin / author.]

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Visva-Bharati: Where the mediocre converge

"Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam" (Where the world converges to build a home) - Motto of Visva-Bharati, founded by Rabindranath Tagore

Two hundred and fifty million Bengalis today would have been a different people if Rabindra Nath Tagore had not been born. Many of my generation would agree with this rather bizarre statement. Tagore had tremendous impact not only on Bangla literature and language, but also on the Bengali way of life, and to a lesser extent, on the country and the world. It is also a fact that Rabindranath is becoming increasingly irrelevant. His ideas do not find many takers in a consumption driven society where greed is considered good.

The school set up by Tagore, Visva-Bharati, is no longer an important centre of learning. It is also plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and repeated violence and strikes. The latest was a strike by employees and teachers, which shut down the institution for six long weeks from 24 September 2009. The strike was withdrawn after an appeal by the Prime Minister.

Any discourse on the recurring strife at Visva-Bharati and its steady downhill journey should examine to what extent its problems reflect the incongruity of the guiding principles of its founder in today’s world. In a letter to the editor in The Statesman (5 Nov 2009), Mr. Bibekananda Ray goes to the heart of the matter when he says: “… a question that well-wishers of Visva-Bharati have to address is, whether this unique and affluent central university should remain wedded to the century-old tradition of imparting man making education or compete with most other universities in awarding degrees that have value in the job market in India and abroad.”

Students no longer study to gain knowledge. They do so to find well-paying jobs. To many, knowledge is worth pursuing only if there are concomitant material benefits. Simple living is on no one’s agenda. The teachers and employees of Visva-Bharati today are different from their predecessors who earned a pittance and suffered much hardship to run the institution. That began to change in 1951, when Visva-Bharati became a Central University. How can these unalterable facts be reconciled with the ideal of “man making education”?

A way-out from this apparent impasse can be found if we recognise that “man making education” does not necessarily reduce a student’s worth in the job market. None from the alumni of Visva-Bharati have headed airline or soft-drink companies, but countless among them have excelled in their respective fields. Ramkinkar Beij, Kanika Bandopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, Mahasweta Devi, Suchitra Mitra, KG Subramanyam, and Amartya Sen are not exceptions, but dazzling motifs on a general pattern. And in an increasingly complex world, technology cannot deliver everything. Experts from the fields of language, literature, arts, and social and natural sciences too are needed.

Visva-Bharati therefore, hasn’t fallen between the two stools of pursuit of knowledge and “marketable education”. Its problem simply is a vast decline in standards and a lack of quality education. And it is necessary to analyse the causes behind these.

Much has been said about how the CPI M has filled the state-run universities in Bengal with their cadres and cronies. This irrefutable fact is contested by none, including that party. I do not know why nobody ever mentions that the Congress Party has done exactly the same in Visva-Bharati thanks to it being a central university, and their long stints of power in New Delhi. It is widely known that a powerful central minister and his sidekicks have had significant control over recruitments in Visva-Bharati over decades. To illustrate, one might point out that the three principal leaders of the workers’ and teachers’ unions today are former leaders of Chhatra Parishad of the same university. As Birbhum district, where it is located, has no industries and little potential for employment, congressmen treat Visva-Bharati as a goose that lays golden eggs in the shape of lucrative government jobs for their members and followers.

Aside from that, in the small and somewhat closed world of Santiniketan, everyone knows everyone else. Over time, this has created a network of employees, retired employees, ex-students and their families who can influence either the administration or sundry politicians to push their candidates at the time of recruitment.

Consequently, merit has become a casualty at all levels. And instead of the world coming together at this seat of learning, as its founder had envisioned, mediocre people from a small area around Santiniketan have converged to make Visva-Bharati a comfortable nesting ground.

Visva-Bharati does not serve the local community only by providing jobs. At all stages of admission, from primary school to post graduation, internal candidates are given preference. It is expected that a toddler joining one of the preschools run by the university will eventually get a post graduate degree in a discipline of their choice. Merit naturally has a limited role in such a scheme. To attract students from far and wide, the present Vice Chancellor (VC) got admission tests conducted at various centres across India in 2009. But the attempt failed.

On top of these structural problems, Visva-Bharati has been saddled with a succession of failed VCs in the recent past. A mathematician of doubtful standing who was subsequently arrested for financial malpractices was followed by the former head of a nondescript B-School of Kolkata. They apparently cared little for Tagore or his educational philosophy. It is likely that these eminently ordinary gentlemen were political appointees too! The present incumbent, a noted historian, has shown that academic eminence is no guarantee against administrative failure.

There is no easy way out for Visva-Bharati. Without pretending to know the answers, one might suggest a few steps.

The central Congress leadership must rein in their local satraps in the long-term interest of this once unique school of international renown. (Let’s hope good sense will prevail!) Simultaneously, the administration needs to be strengthened by replacing senior officials of proven incompetence. It would be incorrect to focus only on the VC. He/She ought to have a good team. Special chairs may be created to attract outstanding academics to various departments. The revamped administration should get unstinting support from the Centre, with zero tolerance for disruptive trade-unionism.

As regards a roadmap for the institution, a high-level committee appointed by the President of India in 2006 suggested that Visva-Bharati shun courses like law and management. The Committee, headed by Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, was aware that it had the potential to become a model traditional school that could stand as a counterpoint to the market driven education factories that dominate the scene now. Visva-Bharati may still reinvent the magic that produced a galaxy of stars from Ramkinkar Beij to Amartya Sen if there is visionary leadership, and if the deadwood is removed ruthlessly.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Of English and alu paranthas

It was a wide-bodied jet, a Boeing 777. In the “cattle class”, there were ten seats in a row, four in the middle and three each on the sides, with two aisles separating them. I had an aisle seat on the right. Between the window and me were an elderly Haryanvi couple, returning from holiday in Stamford, where their daughter lived. Within minutes of introduction and exchange of pleasantries, the husband, let’s call him Rampal, invited me (and my wife who was not accompanying me) to his home in a village near Sonipet, and promised paranthas made with the finest buffalo milk ghee. After spending a month in the United States, I felt I was already in India. Such an offer was unimaginable from an American. An American would never know the joy of inviting a complete stranger home, or of “feeding broken biscuits to street dogs”.

I knew I wouldn’t travel to Sonipet to eat paranthas, however fine the ghee might be. And my virtual host too knew it as fact. But I am sure his offer was genuine. At that moment, he would have imagined me as a guest in his house. A golden wheat field with water gushing out of a pipe, and tall bony men and women with high cheek bones flashed before my eyes. So I said, ‘Han ji! Zaroor jayenge.’

Rampalji was a retired secondary school teacher and his wife, a homemaker. Their children were well-placed and his family had houses in Sonipet, Chandigarh, and New Delhi. A relaxed person, he was pleased with life and exuded the confidence that comes alongside success. He spoke absolutely no English, like many educated people from the North.

Across the aisle on my left was a young woman with a baby in a bassinet hooked to the wall in front. She was tall, lean, beautiful, in jeans and a white top. She was travelling alone with the baby. She had obviously noticed the book I was reading and spoke to me in Bangla, ‘Kaku, can you please look after my son for a few minutes? I’ll go to the toilet.’

Sonny was remarkably quiet and needed no looking after. His mother came back, thanked me, and took her seat. Then she started chatting with me. She was from a small town near Kolkata and had done Bachelors in Commerce before getting married and joining her husband in New Jersey. She came out as a competent, smart young woman. I liked the simple and forthright way she talked. I also felt the sadness that every man over fifty must have felt at some time or other. She obviously had obviously taken me to be a harmless old fogey.

A little later, an air-hostess handed over disembarkation cards to us. The girl across the aisle approached me again, presently, with a touch of embarrassment, ‘Kaku, could you please complete the form for me?’

As I filled in her form, I thought of the terrible state of English teaching in Bengal. Why, after studying English for eight to twelve years at school and after three years of college, an otherwise confident girl could not fill one of the simplest forms in English?

After I was through with her form, Rampalji gave me a shy smile and asked me to fill his and his wife’s. When they were done, he called a steward and asked for a stamp pad. The steward gave a puzzled look and said, ‘Why do you need a stamp pad, sir?’

Raising his left thumb and pointing at his wife with his right, Rampalji said, ‘Angutha chhap!’

Air India apparently doesn’t include the stamp pad among necessary passenger amenities. The steward replied in Hindi, ‘Sir, you sign for bhabiji. That should be fine.’

My gloomy thoughts about the implications of a school master’s wife being unlettered were interrupted by a delightful, sumptuous dinner served by the much maligned national carrier. After dinner, bhabiji took out some alu paranthas and achhar as a supplementary dish and offered me a plateful. I took one. It was heavenly.

I watched three movies that night, including Dev Anand’s Guide. For some unfathomable reason, all but one of the songs of the film had been snipped off. Whoever did it, couldn’t delete SD Barman’s Wahn kaun hai tera … because it came along with the credits. It was such a big let down! Guide without its lilting songs was like Agra without the Taj and the Fatehpur Sikri.

The next day, before reaching Delhi, I asked Rampalji casually, ‘Sirji, what subjects did you teach in school?’

‘English’, said he.

[This is a true story, except for the names of persons and places. It was published in The Statesman on 19 November, 2009]

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A day in the life of Contemporary India

My day begins with a couple of newspapers, and it usually begins on a sad note. But the combination of the news stories in today’s paper is disturbing even by our abysmal standards.

“Traffic in northern and central parts of the city [Kolkata] came to a standstill for over four hours” as Ms. Mamata Banerjee led a procession. Thousands of people – including the sick and the elderly – had to walk miles to reach their destinations. One can only imagine the agony of patients stuck on ambulances, and hungry little children on school buses. In West Bengal, stories like this appear with metronomic regularity, but still, it is worth asking a simple question: Would the protest be less effectual if it were organised on Sunday instead of Monday? Ms. Mamata Banerjee is the chief minister in waiting. Can’t we expect better sense and more consideration from a person in her exalted position?

The lead story in today’s Statesman says the home secretary virtually admitted that the chief minister had lied about Trinamul Congress’s collusion with the Maoists. A day earlier, the CM had said that the main opposition party in the state had links with the Maoists, who are on a rampage in several districts, killing policemen and civilians almost at will. The home secretary said neither Trinamul nor any other mainstream political parties have links with Maoists. The CM’s information was from “political channels”!

In another country, this would have been enough to pave the way for resignation of either the CM or his home secretary. But such standards are unthinkable in Bengal, where the main political debate is on the number of dead bodies on either side of the political divide. Honour and decency are not words to be found in the political lexicon where so called “senior leaders” use gutter language to attack opponents.

The rest of the country does not fare much better.

A legislator was manhandled by fellow MLAs from MNS in Maharashtra Assembly for taking oath in the national language. A paper-tiger chief minister roared again, warning the MNS chief of stern action. One wonders why no action has ever been taken against him despite repeated crude acts of vandalism in the name of protecting Maratha pride. No one can take away the pride of a community that has produced legends like Vijay Tendulkar, Lata Mangeshkar, Sunil Gavaskar, and Sachin Tendulkar. Will the living Maratha icons unequivocally condemn these rogues? It is high time they did.

Advocates manhandled a judge in Karnataka High Court. They were protesting against continuation of the chief justice of the court who, according to a report submitted by the collector of Thiruvallar District, has usurped large tracts of government land in his village. In the commercial bank where I worked, prima-facie evidence of misappropriation of funds by an employee would attract an automatic suspension followed by an enquiry. How is it that the standards are lower in the highest judiciary of the country than that in a bank? And how can lawyers physically assault a high court judge?

The Delhi chief minister extended the parole granted to the murderer of Jessica Lal on patently false grounds within a year after he began serving life term. Let’s recall, the killer, a congressman’s son, had been indicted only after a huge outcry in the media and an intervention by the Supreme Court. While working with the inmates of a Kolkata jail on behalf of an NGO, I met poor inmates whose appeals for parole had been rejected. Most of the “lifers” were serving without parole for decades. Some of them were simple rural folk who had committed crimes when they were barely eighteen or nineteen. And I am sure there are a few who hadn’t actually committed the crime for which they were imprisoned. In the Indian democracy, some are obviously more equal than others.

In Kolkata, two hundred tramcars (out of a total fleet of 272) have become junk while the authorities have been renovating tram tracks over one to six years with a dispassion not preached in the Geeta. CTC, the tram company, loses 1.80 crore rupees every month because of the idle trams. You go to jail if you rob a man of thousands, but if you rob the public of crores through inefficiency and lack of commitment, you retire in due course with full pension and a few garlands. The CTC chairman, a political appointee, certainly will.

I might close this summary of the day’s news with the story that puts us all to shame. India ranks 114th out of 134 countries in terms of man-woman equality. This is a finding of the World Economic Forum. Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh are above us on the list. This means women in those countries have a better opportunity to share the available resources with men.

A definitive measure of civilisation is how women are treated in a society. Perhaps this statistic explains everything else. We are NOT a civilised country.

10 November 2009

Sunday, 8 November 2009

God’s own countrymen

We were in Goa on a holiday, with two small children. After a blissful week on the shores at Miramar and Calangute, the evening before we were to leave, I told my wife it would be sacrilege to leave Goa without tasting feni.

Alone I walked into a bar teeming with clients and found an empty table. When I asked for a drink, the waiter was apologetic: it was the 2nd of October; they wouldn’t serve alcohol. Then, after watching the shadow of disappointment cross my face, he added, ‘Sir, if you don’t put the bottle on the table, I’ll get you one.’

Looking around, I found that every single person in that crowd was enjoying their drink, but the bottles were all on the floor. Abstinence: Goa style!

Further down south, men of Kerala too are reputed for their devotion to the bottle. Throughout Kerala, you find dimly lit joints selling arrack or toddy. At a temple near Kannur, people offer the presiding deity – a pagan God – meat and toddy: God’s own country liquor. Crowds of mostly economically disadvantaged people throng the temple on holidays. Kannur is dominated by Marxists; even religion there seems divided across class lines.

In much of semi-urban India, hotel means restaurant, just as an inn means a pub in England. Once, a colleague and I stopped for lunch at a hotel around two in the afternoon on our way to Ernakulam from Idukky. It was one of those small market places around a bus stand, a beehive of activities. Each of the two floors of the restaurant had rows of eight-by-ten-foot rooms on either side of a long corridor. And every room had two tables. A rather unusual design for a restaurant! My colleague, who was from the area, said the building had begun its life as a hospital, but the owners had shifted to a more profitable line of business. Almost all the tables were occupied by men holding glasses containing liquids, the colours of which ranged from sunset yellow to dark red. My eyebrows rose, ‘At 2 PM?’

My companion said contemptuously, ‘These fellows start drinking before they brush their teeth.’

For the sake of completeness, I must add that none of my numerous friends from Kerala imbibe a drop more than they should, although I have come across many alcoholics elsewhere.

Bengaluru / 22 September 2009 / 393 words

Thursday, 29 October 2009

How can you not love Hyderabad?

In Hyderabad, we lived close to Mozam Jahi Market in the main business district of the city. Our residential complex seemed to be an unwelcome guest in that locality. The main market was a circular structure of rough granite, where meats and vegetables were sold. But it was only a minor planet in a bustling commercial universe.

Beside the market was the famed Karachi Bakery, which sells the finest fruit biscuits made outside heaven. Often, there used to be a long queue in front of the bakery in the evening: people would wait patiently to buy their freshly baked bread. Across the main road was a huge fruit market. As one walked along a narrow lane treading on decaying leaves and broken baskets, one passed dingy shops on either side, with mountains of fruits. The shops changed their colour (and merchandise) every few months. Summer meant golden mangoes, numerous varieties of them. August and September, black and green custard apples in abundance. There were great deluges of grapes, oranges, and apples from time to time, not to mention the lesser fruits like bananas and guavas.

Shops in the nearby road leading to the Bank Street sold hardware and asbestos sheets. At its entrance was a tent house, an establishment that rented out tarpaulins, marquees, chairs etc. for functions like weddings. (A little away at Gunfoundry, one also found a row of red Cadillac and Impala convertibles eagerly waiting to carry bridegrooms to their destiny.) This road was always chock-a-block with shoppers, porters carrying baskets on head, push carts, rickshaws and small trucks. Walking along the road was a nightmare even in 1981. I shudder to think of how it is like today, with so many thousands of new vehicles on roads.

Adjacent to the main market, there was a road-side workshop where masked welders fabricated iron grilles. As I walked home for lunch, sparks from their welding guns flew in every direction. Whenever I crossed them, I recalled an earlier incident when an enterprising mechanic had tried to weld a leaking acetylene cylinder. The resultant explosion killed many, including some passers by. That recollection hurried my steps as I walked from home to office or the other way round.

The luxury of going home for lunch was not the only pleasure of living in Hyderabad. It was (and still is) a beautiful city with parks and lakes. At weekends, we used to go for long walks along the Tank Bund in the cool breeze blowing in from Hussain Sagar, or watch children frolicking in the Public Gardens. Although April and May was uncomfortably hot, with the first rains, Hyderabad would magically transform itself into a delightfully cool place. And would remain so for the next ten months.

Our children were toddlers then. Hasheem Chacha used to take them to their preschool on his cycle. Hasheem, a slender elderly man with a stoop, worked as a part-time sweeper in our bank and supplemented his meagre income with odd jobs like that. Hasheem sang in a mellifluous voice and used to render ghazals on radio regularly. If one is asked to talk about an Indian tragedy, one might recall the last floods or the latest communal riots. But the fact that a gifted singer like Hasheem had to earn his living as a sweeper was tragic too.

Opposite our house, there was a restaurant that sold mouth-watering but terribly spicy biriyani. Our children loved it, but it was most unfriendly towards their tender stomachs. Some evenings, my wife tucked in the kids early. When they were safely asleep, I would leave the house surreptitiously to bring home some biriyani for us.

Behind our house, there was an exhibition ground that came alive every few months with trade fairs. The constants in the fairs were the eateries, a giant Ferris wheel, a toy train and a motorboat on an artificial lake slightly bigger than a bathtub. But the stalls changed. At one time, it was a handicrafts exhibition, at another, it was an industrial fair. Our children loved these exhibitions. I too liked them … I always love the anonymity and aloneness offered by crowds.

In one of the fairs, we came across a stall that showcased a new motorbike. My wife and I looked at it from different angles. It was a time when only a miniscule percentage of salaried employees could afford to buy a two-wheeler. I was not one of them, although I was a bank manager. After working out the arithmetic of our savings and the quantum of loan available from office, we decided to postpone the venture to an indeterminate future. And forgot all about it.

At home that night, my daughter and son didn’t go to bed at the appointed hour. They were closeted in their study, discussing something. After a while, the discussion turned acrimonious, and a full scale war began. We were a little surprised because they rarely fought.

As we mediated a ceasefire, we learnt what the issue was. They were fighting over who should sit in front and who should sit behind when the bike was bought.

Bangalore, 30 September 2009

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Jibanananda Das

This day fifty-five years ago Jibanananda Das (born 17 February, 1899) died in a hospital after struggling for life for eight days. He had been hit by a tram near Deshapriya Park in Kolkata while returning home after an evening walk on 14th October, 1954. We wouldn’t know what thoughts made him so unmindful that he didn’t notice the oncoming tramcar. Perhaps it was something inconsequential. Perhaps, as many have suggested, he himself wanted to end his life. But the moment certainly made Bangla literature enormously poorer.

Jiban+ananda means “the joy of life”. His poetry does celebrate the joy of life, but he was an unhappy man trapped in a fractured marriage. He fought poverty through his life and oscillated between Barishal, a district town in East Bengal, and Kolkata, often in search of a job. He taught English at a number of colleges, but in most of them, he didn’t survive beyond a few months.

A collection of his unpublished poems brought out three years after his death bears the title Rupasi Bangla (Beautiful Bengal). Much of his poetry is about rural Bengal. But it is not an overt celebration of her beauty. Rather, it is about the subliminal sadness, helplessness, love, and sexuality of its people.

Later, in the second largest metropolis of the British Empire, Jibanananda observed the “deep malaise” that had gripped the city, and “drank tea at a tavern in hell”. About the city, he wrote:


A leper opens the hydrant tap to lap up water
Or maybe, the hydrant had been leaking.
Now, midnight descends on the city like a raiding hoard.
An automobile goes past, coughing, like an idiot

Spluttering restless petrol; it seems despite taking every care
Someone has fallen grotesquely into water.
Three hand-pulled rickshaws rush away,
And merge with the last gas light as if by magic.

I too left Fears Lane at a reckless moment
And walked miles before stopping in front of a wall
In Bentink Street, at Teritty Bazaar;
To breathe in air that’s dry as parched peanuts.


The tune is her very own, but still, a Jewish woman
Sings through her slumber from a second-floor window;
The dead smirk from above, ‘Is that music?
Or a mine of gold, paper and fossil fuels?’

The young feringees walk away, smart and neat,
An ancient African smiles through his sagging jowl
And cleans the briar pipe in his hand
He trusts the world much as a gorilla does.

To him, the noble night of the city
Looks like a jungle in Libiya
Where the animals are unique and overpaid,
In fact, they put on clothes out of shame.

Who has fallen grotesquely into water despite taking every care? Was he talking about the city and its people?

Three hundred million Bengalis today would have been a different people had Rabindranath Tagore not been born. And millions like me would have been different persons if Jibananda hadn’t written his poems. But sadly, he will at best be partially known to the rest of the world.

Jibanananda’s poetry is seeped in Bengali ethos and his language, in nuances that are typical of the place, people, and their history and mythology. Much of Jibanananda is untranslatable. Here is another of my unsuccessful attempts to translate him. The poem, Banalata Sen (written in 1934/35), is a milestone in Bangla literature.

I’ve been walking the paths of this world
For a thousand years. Much have I travelled
From the waters of Ceylon to the Malaya seas;
In the withering worlds of Ashoka and Vimvisara,
Where I lived in the still more distant city of Vidarva.
A tired soul am I, spindrift raging all round me,
I’d but moments of quiet, with Banalata Sen of Natore.

Her hair was like the distant dark nights of Vidisha
Her face – sculpted lines from Sravasti!
Like a ship-wrecked sailor who’s lost his compass
Finds a green patch of Cinnamon Island on a faraway sea,
I’ve seen her in darkness. Said she,
‘Where have you been so long?’
Looking up with her bird’s-nest eyes,
Banalata Sen of Natore.

As the day drifts to an end, darkness descends
Like the sound of dewdrops.
Kites wipe the smell of sunshine off their wings.
As the colours of the day fade, manuscripts take over.
And then the glimmering fireflies gather for tales.
All the birds come home, all the rivers;
All exchanges come to an end. Darkness reigns
And there remains, to sit before me – Banalata Sen.

[Published in the Indian Literature, July/August, 2008]

Kolkata / Thursday, 22 October 2009

Friday, 9 October 2009

A lonesome elephant

My friend Vishweswaraiah once told me a Kannada proverb: One attains wisdom only by reading and travelling. But for the first condition, I would have been a wise man by now.

On joining the audit department of our bank, I travelled continuously for two years. Should you care to accompany me, I can take you from the Chandragiri River in North Kerala to the bhul-bhulaiah in Lucknow to the city of Pune teeming with scooters ridden by lovely young women, which made the prospect of being knocked down on the road rather attractive. I can tell you the true story of a magician who took an equipment loan from our bank. He thanked the manager, shook hands, and vanished, never to be seen again. Or maybe, I’ll tell you the story of a distraught elephant in Parambikulam, although my stodgy prose is unequal to the task of describing the breathtaking beauty of a tropical rain forest washed by moonlight.

I was in Chittur-Palakkad in North Kerala. The Head Cashier of our bank there was lovingly called “Swami” by all. He looked a saintly sixty or thereabout, with a mane of silver hair and many lines criss-crossing his face; but he looked old only until he smiled, which he did often. A smile erased years and decades from his handsome face and turned him into a young man.

One day during the lunch break, I told him and his deputy, Sreeram that I would love to visit a jungle near Palakkad. It was a casual remark and I soon forgot about it. But after a few days Sreeram said a jeep had been hired, a forest bungalow booked, and six of us would be on our way to Parambikulam the following Saturday afternoon.

For the statistically oriented, Parambikulam is a 285 square kilometres wild life sanctuary 110 kilometres away from Palakkad. It is dotted with dams and reservoirs and mostly consists of teak trees, partly natural and partly commercial forestry. One of the chief attractions of the forest is the giant Konnemara teak. It is one of the tallest and oldest trees in India.

Our driver Raju was a wiry young man with a huge curling moustache and a matching fierce look. He could have been the twin of the notorious poacher and sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, maybe separated at birth. Though he looked scary, I felt we couldn’t have had a more reassuring man to drive us through a forest. But appearances can be deceptive. This would be proved once again during our trip.

The Wild Life Warden’s office at Thoonakadavu overlooks a picturesque dam. By the time we reached there, the sun was going down. The bungalow reserved for us was at Thellikal, a marshy area deep inside the forest frequented by herbivores. The Warden gave us a guide and told us to go to the bungalow immediately. He also asked us not to drive during the night as it was not safe for us, and more importantly, inconvenient to the animals. “In the jungle,” a poster proclaimed, “the animal has the right of way”.

As we were about to leave, the warden casually mentioned that an old male elephant had been recently dislodged from his herd and harem by a stronger, younger bull. The former was out in the open, unattached, lonesome and distraught. These single bulls often turn into rouges and we had to avoid him at all costs.

As we reached the Peruvazhipallam dam after a short drive, the jungle had been lit up by a gorgeous yellow twilight. The dam had a blue expanse of water on one side and bluer hills on the other, where our destination nestled. We had to take a jungle road, the entry to which was barred by a padlocked chain. At this point, our guide said he had forgotten to bring the key. (After all, he was a government employee!) A few of us stayed there as the jeep went back to collect the key. We sat under a banyan tree and watched night descend softly on the jungle. In the gathering darkness we also saw some moving bushes beside the river far away. Elephants drinking water, frolicking.

By the time we crossed the chain dividing civilization and the rapidly shrinking rest of the world, it was pitch dark. The jungle path was rough, narrow, undulating. It was closely hugged by lush foliage on either side.

The jeep was rolling down the hill gently and we were close to the stream beside which we had seen the elephants a little earlier. But for the headlights, darkness prevailed all around. From the soft rustling of water seeping through the whirr of the engine, we knew we were near the river.

Suddenly we heard loud trumpeting by elephants right next to us. Raju lost his nerve and swerved wildly, away from the sound. The jeep went off the road and nearly fell on its side.

The minor mishap was soon forgotten as we met some lovely animals. First, it was a tiny rabbit caught in the headlight beam. Scared, he ran furiously ahead of our jeep. He was too panicked to turn right or left. We had to stop and switch off the lights to end the unequal contest between a tiny child of Nature and human technology.

Next came a family of bison. A few luminous eyes reflecting the headlight soon revealed two huge gaurs and a little calf with humped backs and thin legs with white stockings. They looked quite different from the bison seen in zoos. Animals in captivity are not their real selves. The bison watched us intently for a long moment, crossed the path and swiftly vanished into the wood. One expected such huge creatures to be clumsy. But they moved with the effortless grace of a leaf caught in a winter breeze.

It started raining. Our jeep jerked along from one ditch to another. We were about two kilometres away from our destination on a straight road when we saw the elephant. He was alone, walking ahead of us slowly. We stopped, kept the lights and engine on and watched him move away from us. One of his tusks was seen from the side, glistening in rain and the headlight. Our guide explained that he was the unattached bull the Warden had warned us about. The pachyderm moved on and was not seen after a while.

We waited for a long time before cautiously restarting our journey. Nothing happened until we saw him again. Presently, he was walking towards us. Caught in the headlight beam, he looked magnificent. He walked towards us with the quiet grace of someone who knew he was the master of the situation. Perhaps he had no malice, but there was no way to check. Neither was it possible to find out how badly he was upset by the recent turmoil in his conjugal life.

The night was dark, the uneven jungle path slippery after the rain, and there was no space to turn the jeep. A huge tusker was coming nearer and nearer, with his tusks pitching and his trunk swinging like the hand of Fate. The overcast sky and the dark jungle behind him paled into insignificance as the impossibly large elephant loomed over us, covering the entire windshield. A line from Kenneth Anderson flashed through my mind: “It is okay if you meet a herd of elephants in the jungle. But beware of the single elephant. He could be dangerous.”

This time, no one could fault Raju if he panicked. He put the vehicle on the reverse gear, but released the clutch too quickly. The engine stalled ... the elephant was right over us, held back for the moment, possibly by the heat of the engine ... Swami, who was between me and the driver, caught Raju by his collar and shook him until he recovered his wit.

Each moment seemed like an eternity. Eventually, Raju managed to start the car on the reverse. He drove like mad towards complete darkness on a slushy, uneven path. If the elephant didn’t get us, our driver would. This fast forward on the reverse continued for a fairly long time until the people sitting behind shouted in unison and the jeep stopped with a violent jerk, dangerously close to a precipice.

Much later, we were able to reach the bungalow, an ancient tiled building surrounded by a moat. The ground beneath our feet was covered by a thick layer of soggy leaves. We stepped on a flimsy log to cross the moat. The mysterious bungalow stood like the last signpost of a forgotten civilization. By then, the moon had stopped playing hide-and-seek with mischievous clouds. A gibbous moon was greeted by tall trees that threw mysterious rivers of moonlight below. Crickets provided the orchestral score for a song whispered by wind blowing through leaves.

The teak trees were hundreds of years old, many of them taller that ten storeyed buildings. This is how the forest was hundreds of years ago. This is how it should be hundreds of years from now. Mother Nature stood before us in her primeval beauty. The twentieth century lost its meaning.

We sat outside the bungalow with the mandatory rum and Coke. All of us, including the most prosaic man in our group, agreed that it would be a crime to sleep on such a night.


Friday, 25 September 2009

Thirteen is a lucky number

On my first day in the bank, I met Raji and Venks, who remain my friends after 34 years during which the earth has become warmer, the world less quiet, and people more bitter.

Over the next few weeks, I met the rest of my batch. We were a some-what cosmopolitan group of thirteen. Seven of us were Malayalis, four spoke Tamil at home, one Kannada, and one, Bangla. There were three lovely girls, Raji, Mythily, and Sindhu, though not necessarily in that order. Only two of us, Gopes and Raji, were from Thiruvananthapuram. The rest were fresh imports.

All of them were well-informed, if not well-read. They could discuss anything under the sun and tried their best not to talk shop outside office. Mythily, brought up in New Delhi and LSR College, spoke at a fast clip. I followed her with difficulty, like I did Vivian Leigh or Joan Baez. But our colleagues at Puthenchanthai branch hardly understood her English. She was a small, slender, serious girl with a sunny smile and ate one apple for lunch.

Nija was the tallest among us, an adorable, happy-go-lucky fellow who loved food and films. He often sang – out of key – “Hawa mein udta jaye, mera lal dopatta malmalka, hoji, malmalka.” He and Mythily – who were seemingly opposite in every respect – fell in love during the first few months in the bank and married a few years later. They were the first to desert us for greener pastures, although our pasture was quite green at the time.

For some reason, there were a disproportionately large number of physics graduates among us. Gopes was an engineer from the IIT and Sindhu had done her MA in English. Gopes and Damu were products of two different Sainik Schools; their English didn’t have the usual Malayali twang. In fact, the only thing visibly Malayali about Gopes was his moustache; Damu didn’t even have that. There were two budding economists, Sriram and Mythily. The second named has almost fully budded now; she is a top-notch editor of a leading economic daily. Sriram was a warm young man with strong opinions and a hearty laugh that -- like a sparkler -- lit up the people around him. Most of us had done masters or equivalent and had been either toppers or very near the top of our respective classes.

The only black sheep in the group were Joe and me. We were not only mere graduates, neither of us had a “first class” under our belt. During our head office training, a venerable senior officer, KC Oomen took an avuncular interest in us and enquired each of us about their backgrounds. (Being a meticulous person, he would also jot down the details in a notebook.) I still remember the look of sadness on his face when I said I had a second class. For the first time in my life, I felt sorry for my academic record and thought I ought to have spent less time chasing girls at college.

Joe has a wacky sense of humour. After confirmation, he and Damu were posted at our main office in Bombay. Joe got a letterhead printed for them both. It read:

Menon and Manimury
Assistant Accountants

Many years later, when we were living far apart in course of our peripatetic careers, once all of us had to gather at Thiruvananthapuram for something, possibly an interview for promotion. I reached a day earlier and took a room at Baba Tourist Lodge or maybe, Bhaskara Bhavan. Early next morning, when it was still pitch dark, there was loud thumping on my door accompanied by the announcement that tea was brought. Irritated and still asleep, I said, ‘Chaya venda!’

There was silence for a few minutes. Then further thumping and: ‘Caapi saaré!’

Stretching my Malayalam to its limit, I yelled, ‘Chaya, caapi, unnum venda!’

Silence for a few more minutes, followed by more banging of the door: ‘Saaré, naarenga velyam (lemon squash)!’

As I opened the door, ready to knock off the impudent hotel boy, I found Joe with a broad, mischievous smile on his bearded face.

A few weeks after we met, we were invited for tea to Raji’s home at East Fort. Her siblings were youngsters with sparkling eyes, for whom academic excellence came naturally. Their sparsely furnished house with its sparkling red cemented floor and white walls with few windows was in sharp contrast with the elaborately furnished Christian houses of Kerala. As I walked into their home, I felt I was entering an RK Narayan book, an impression confirmed by the later day TV serial Malgudi Days.

A few months later, I felt the same way when I visited Sriram’s house in Chennai, although from outside, his house looked quite different from hers. Sriram and Raji are in different corners of the world now, and each of them has done exceedingly well in their diverse fields.

Besides learning about different lifestyles, there was so much else to learn from friends. Gopes was, and still is, an epitome of balance and maturity. Raji would talk straight; she had a healthy irreverence for authority. Thomas is personification of sincerity, loved by all who come in contact with him. About twenty years later, I took over from him as the head of our main branch office at Kolkata. He was held in such high esteem by the staff there ... it was to be seen to be believed.

Just as sincere is Venks, who makes absolutely no attempt to mask his views to please people. Roy, Mr Dependable, is warmth. From Sriram, I could have learnt how to work hard, but I didn’t. But from Damu, I did try to learn something: not to complain about personal difficulties. He never does. If – God forbid – one found him floating on a plank on the sea after a shipwreck, he would still smile and say, ‘Oh! I am fine.’

Good friends are one’s best teachers.

[A note to those mentioned here and those who aren't: If you happen to read this, could you please pass it on and jot down your reflections to compare your notes with mine?]

Bangalore, 23 September 2009 / 900 words

Saturday, 19 September 2009

A love story

She came to my life five years after my wife did, and it was love at fist sight.

As a low-flying made-in-India Avro flew barely metres above millions of dark green coconut palms – it was long before they turned into a shade of melancholy yellow – the first-time visitor to the God’s own country was stunned by her gorgeous beauty. And the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, turned out to be equally beautiful. Clean undulating roads, picturesque tiled bungalows framed in lovely croton filled gardens …. The landscape was unusually green for a city, and was not blighted by multi-storeyed structures except for a few institutional buildings. Everyone on the roads looked healthy and well-nourished, including the mongrels. Every man and woman was in sparkling white, as if it was decreed by law. And everyone carried an umbrella, whether it rained or not.

And it did rain in abundance, with not one, but two monsoons sweeping the sky every year. I recall it began raining punctually on the first day of June, 1991. And it didn’t stop – at least while we were awake – for 60 days. But surprisingly, water never “logged” Thiruvananthapuram. It was so because wherever you might be in the city, there is a place below.

Besides natural drainage, what kept the city clean was its people. Rarely do you come across a community in India with a better sense of personal hygiene and cleanliness. (This of course is true for Kerala as a whole.) Garbage used to be dumped in a pit in the backyard, and burnt periodically. Once, on a visit to the cancer ward of the Medical College Hospital, I saw a man vigorously wiping an already spotlessly clean floor. Such punctilious cleanliness in a government hospital would surprise any visitor from outside, but was nothing unusual there. Almost all the houses in the city were freshly painted.

The men in Thiruvananthapuram (and Kerala) have a matter-of-fact approach to life. It is best demonstrated by their half-mast dhotis. How convenient it is in a place where it rains thirteen months a year. When I first went there in 1975, one would hardly come across anyone in trousers outside offices. And it was dangerous to go to the fringes of the city in the sahib’s attire after sundown. One ran the risk of being chased by stray dogs.

I had brought an expensive trouser length from Kolkata. As I went round the downtown, half a dozen tailors said they didn’t have the technical know-how to stitch pants. Finally, I found a stately elderly Muslim with a flowing mehendified beard who not only stitched trousers, but also spoke Hindustani. He had gathered the technology in no less a place than Lahore, the home of a dandy named Dev Anand.

As he took measurement, I was thoroughly impressed. He studied the lower part of my anatomy with a scientist’s thoroughness, stopping at every three inches with his tape and jotting down a figure. He assured me that there was no need for a trial; he would deliver the finished product after a fortnight.

On the appointed day, when I put the trousers on, I found it was a cross between a parachute and a pyjama. And the wrong side of the cloth was outside.

On a serious note, the practical mind of its inhabitants shows in the architecture of their houses. They are so well ventilated and cool even in summer! No wonder, an unconventional and innovative architect like Laurie Baker found so many ardent followers in Thiruvananthapuram. The city has some lovely churches and temples too.

I am an agnostic and Arundhati is mildly religious. Often, we used to walk round the Chengallur Temple in the evening, feel the crisp sand beneath our feet, and sit down in front of the temple tank. As the diyas were being lit, peace would descend upon the silent temple compound like invisible fog from the sky above ... we would sit there, silent ... and try to rediscover each other ... When the konna tree opposite the temple began spouting gorgeous yellow flowers, we knew spring had arrived in the tropical, evergreen city.

Even the acne on a woman’s cheek seems beautiful to her young lover. Unfortunately, I am too old to be a young lover. I know, Thiruvananthapuram, like life, is not uninterrupted bliss. No account of the city would be complete without a mention of its terrible political culture, arrogant shop-keepers (who love to say “illey”), and the signboard in front of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple barring entry to those who do not profess Hinduism. But even with these minor quirks, it is easily one of the loveliest places in the world.

This love story will continue till death do us part.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A tale of two cities

… But not of Paris and London; this tale is about Hyderabad and ….

It was a lovely evening at Deepanwita and Pinaki’s flat in Hyderabad. The time was March/April in 2006, shortly before the West Bengal state assembly elections that year. Besides the hosts, there were two of us: one of their friends, who shall bear the name Alapon here, and me.

At the dining table, we had an animated discussion about the coming elections. There was much excitement: politics can be as intoxicating as any alcoholic beverage, particularly for Bongs. And Alapon, a thin, almost emaciated man in his fifties, was an interesting company. It was past midnight when Pinaki and I saw off Alapon as he took off on his rickety scooter, and retired to our respective homes.

At 4.30 next morning, Pinaki received a phone call from another city. It was a common friend of theirs from Bangalore: Alapon had met with an accident on his way home. A police patrol van had discovered a bleeding unconscious man and his battered scooter, and admitted him to the nearest hospital, Yashoda Hospital in Alexander Road, Secunderabad. The first phone number on Alapon’s cell phone was that of the friend in Bangalore; the police had called him up.

At 5 AM, a receptionist at Yashoda Hospital in Alexander Road informed Pinaki that as they did not have the facilities to treat head injury, they had transferred the patient to the Somajiguda unit of the same hospital.

And the Somajiguda hospital there did these things. The doctor in charge of emergencies arranged for a CT scan as soon as the patient was brought in. He noticed indications of brain damage on the scanned images and the hospital called up a senior neuro-surgeon – I think his name was Dr. Ramamoorthy – from his sleep. Dr. Ramamoorthy examined Alapon at 4.30 in the morning and the hospital was preparing to conduct an emergency surgery when Pinaki and other friends arrived on the scene.

Alapon was saved, thanks to some alert policemen and an unbelievably wonderful hospital.

But why do I recall the story after three years?

One evening in August 2009, a young woman went to a well-known private hospital in Kolkata with a splitting headache. The doctors got a CT scan done at about 8 in the same evening. They found something wrong and got her admitted. They told her husband that the CT images would be examined by a specialist the next morning.

A neurologist saw the images at 11 next morning and she was taken for surgery immediately. There was further haemorrhage while the surgery was being conducted; she survived, narrowly.

What was it that made a private hospital in Hyderabad do everything that could be done for an unknown patient even when they did not know who would foot the bill? And what is it that makes a Kolkata hospital wait for 15 long, potentially killing hours after a scan indicates serious issues? Was anyone taken to task for this criminal negligence? I know not.

And this is not one of the much maligned government hospitals of the city. It is supposed to be one of the best, and certainly one of the costliest. Moreover, this hospital has a tie-up with a well-known Chennai based hospital, where many patients from Kolkata go for treatment. How can an organization that runs smoothly in Chennai botch things up so horribly in Kolkata?

I know, presenting chosen examples is not is hardly the right way to prove a point. But if you ask ten persons who have dealt with hospitals in Hyderabad and ten more, who have in Kolkata, I bet you will find that my examples represent the overall scenario quite well.

After seeing numerous instances of colossal inefficiency and lack of commitment, morbid disdain for patients/clients, and crass negligence in the healthcare industry in particular and the service sector in general, I wonder if something is intrinsically wrong with Bengal. We have forgotten how to serve.

The situation must change, although no one knows how it will. Perhaps we need social reformers of the stature of Ram Mohun Roy and Swami Vivekananda, but that is not in our hands. The least that one can, and must try to do, is to do well whatever one does. Is that too tall an order?

Kolkata, 15 September 2009

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Ordinary man, extraordinary courage

On 15 June 2004, some policemen shot to death Ishrat Jahan, Javed Ghulam Sheikh, Amjad Ali, and Jisan Johar Abdul Gani on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in an “encounter” in the small hours, when there were no witnesses around. According to the Gujarat Police (who happened to be their killers), they were on their way to assassinate the chief minister of the state.

Ishrat Jahan was a nineteen year old college student from a poor family in Thane, Maharashtra. She was popular in her college and in her neighbourhood. She had neither a previous criminal record nor any known link with a terrorist outfit.

On 7 September, 2009, a metropolitan magistrate of Ahmedabad, Sri S P Tamang submitted an enquiry report on the incident. The Hindu wrote:

... Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate S.P. Tamang, has ruled that the incident in which Ishrat Jahan and three others were killed in June, 2004, was yet another case of “fake encounter.”

In his 243-page hand written report on the encounter, Mr. Tamang has named the then “encounter specialist” of the Gujarat police, D.G. Vanzara, and others as accused in the “cold blooded murder” of the teenaged girl and three others.

Mr. Vanzara and several other policemen are already in jail in connection with the Sohrabuddin case which the State government confessed before the Supreme Court was a case of “fake encounter.”

Mr Tamang’s report said the Crime Branch police “kidnapped” Ishrat and three others from Mumbai on June 12 and brought them to Ahmedabad. The four were killed on the night of June 14 in police custody, but the police claimed that an “encounter” took place on the morning of June 15 near Kotarpur water works on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The rigor mortis that had set in clearly indicated that Ishrat died between 11 p.m. and 12 midnight the previous night and the police apparently pumped bullets into her body to substantiate the encounter theory.

It said the explosives, rifles, and other weapons allegedly found in their car were all “planted” by the police after the encounter.

As expected, all hell broke loose when newspapers published contents of the report. The state government condemned the report and it was promptly stayed by the High Court. The controversy also generated a war of words between the central government and the state government.

Now, who is this person, Magistrate Tamang? The newspaper DNA says Tamang, who hails from Darjeeling, has lived in Ahmedabad since his birth as his parents had settled in the city. He lives in Chandkheda with his wife and a nine-year-old son. Lawyers at the metropolitan court term Tamang as an honest and straightforward man.

A message posted by Smti. Vasudha Nagaraj on the Net gives more detailed and exceedingly relevant information about Magistrate Tamang and his enquiry. I am quoting from her message here:

… Soon after the encounter [in June, 2004] there were enquiries by human rights groups which declared that it was a cold blooded killing and not an encounter. To counter the demands, the Crime Branch ordered a Magistrate to enquire into the matter. It has been reported that no Magistrate was willing to stick his neck into this issue. Finally on 12 August, 2009 the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM) ordered Magistrate Tamang to conduct the inquiry. The latter was supposed to conduct this inquiry under S 176 CrPC. This is the section of law in which a Magistrate is empowered to hold an inquiry into the cause of death whenever a person dies while in police custody or when it is a death in doubtful circumstances. …

… Magistrate Tamang commenced his inquiry, and completed it within 25 days. As part of this inquiry, it is reported that he read through forensic reports, postmortem reports, FIRs, and several other witness depositions. There were 1159 documents to be read. Soon after, Magistrate Tamang wrote up his report concluding his inquiry. ... The report runs into 243 pages and it is completely handwritten. On 7 September, 2009 Magistrate Tamang submitted the report to the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate.

On the same day, Mukul Sinha, the veteran civil liberties lawyer who has defended hundreds of Muslims in the riot cases in Gujarat, came to know about the submission of this report. He applied for a certified copy, got a copy the same evening, and released it to the media. Perhaps, Mukul Sinha thought that if he let go of this opportunity, the report would never be made public.

… For a Magistrate who is on the lowest rung of the judiciary to have taken such a step is so amazing. These are officers of the judiciary who preside in dark dingy court halls, often overburdened, understaffed, and write their judgments in equally dingy chambers. The accused who come to their courts are accused of petty offences, whose imprisonment cannot go beyond two years. These magistrates generally have just one attendant and come on their own scooter or motorcycle to the court, or a group of Magistrates are brought in court vans. …

In such a context for Magistrate Tamang to write a 243 pages handwritten order and indicting 21 police officers becomes history. It is one thing for a High Court judge or a Supreme Court judge to produce such reports and make such observations. But the implications are very different when a Magistrate presiding and living in Ahmedabad decides [to] protest by not just affirming the rule of law but also pushing the limits of the law. Magistrate Tamang would have known that his career in the judiciary was over and that he had invited the wrath of the state, the higher courts and the accused police. He surely would have made up his mind, exercised a conscious choice to interpret S 176 CrPC in a manner that would enable justice to be done for Ishrat Jehan and her three friends.

I join the author of this message in saluting Magistrate Tamang for his courage and sense of duty. He should be considered a national hero.

All murders are despicable, but I am sure that even the English lexicon with its six hundred thousand words does not have a word strong enough to condemn when a government kills innocent citizens in cold blood instead of protecting them, which is its primary responsibility.

My feeble voice of protest will not go very far, but surely, the will of 100 crore people can stop the thugs of Ahmedabad and put them in jails, to where they belong.

[I thank Smti. Vasudha Nagaraj for the wonderful write-up and Sri Rajarshi Dasgupta for forwarding the message to me.]

Monday, 7 September 2009

To Sir, with love

The bell announced the end of the recess. But there was something in the crystal sky and the crisp autumn sun that made the entire troop of muddy boys defy it. The sun had come out after weeks of rain and the entire school had congregated on the slushy playground during the "tiffin" break. Innumerable football matches were being played on the same pitch simultaneously. We went on playing, defying the bell.

We were no angels, but such indiscipline was unthinkable even by our standards.

After a few minutes, suddenly, there was a massive flight. Most of us didn’t know what caused the panicky retreat, we just ran; the playground emptied in minutes. Then we noticed the familiar dark hefty figure of our Assistant Headmaster, Umapati Babu, standing beside the ground quietly, doing absolutely nothing. A calm unhurried man who spoke in a small voice, sir had introduced us to the fear of God when we were young.

Controlling 800 odd young rowdies was left mainly to Umapati Babu, who made the daunting task look easy. He rarely raised his hand to thrash an errant boy, but his name spelt terror. He was seen only in a sparkling white kurta and a dhoti that scarcely covered his knees. Dressed in the same attire and barefoot, he often scored goals from free-kicks during the annual teacher-student football matches, although after so many decades, I don’t recall if he could bend them like Beckham. Mostly busy with administrative work, he didn’t teach any course regularly; but he could chip in anywhere if required: he was equally at home in subjects ranging from Sanskrit to maths.

Once, my friend Arunabha and I got on the wrong side of this extraordinary gentleman. On Saturdays, our school used to be over at the recess time. One Saturday after school, we planned to play cricket. The two of us took Umapati Babu’s permission to take out the cricketing gear. Come Monday, the stumps were missing from where we had left them after our game. When we were summoned by the Assistant Headmaster, we had no inkling of this, or the misfortune that was to follow. An epitome of simplicity and fair play, sir straightaway accused us of stealing. Our mumbled protests were swatted like fleas. He closed the interview quickly: ‘Bring back the stumps tomorrow. But your troubles won’t be over.’

The humiliation was devastating. We were about thirteen then, and had faced injustice even earlier. But that incident brought home how cruelly unfair the world can be: a cardinal lesson that everybody learns, sooner or later.

The resolution of the crisis was no less a learning experience. The next day, we met Sir with a set of new stumps. For the first time in our lives, we looked him straight in the eyes and said, ‘Sir, we have brought new stumps. We never stole anything.’

Umapati Babu stared at us – eyes blazing – for what seemed an eternity. We cringed before the stare and knew that our goose was cooked. Then his lineament softened; said he, ‘Take your wretched stumps and get lost!’

Perhaps I saw a hint of moistening in his eyes, I am not sure. But I am sure it was his way of telling us that there is no shame in admitting one’s mistake, even to a child.

I heard yesterday sir is no more. If there is God above, He seems to have forgotten the art of making men like him.

[Mr. Umapati Kumar was the Assistant Headmaster of the Secondary Section of Ballygunge Government High School, Kolkata, when I was a student there from 1962 to 1968. This article was published in The Statesman.]

Kolkata, January 2005

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Libraries in the US

One of the many things that make the United States of America a civilized country is their system of public libraries. I must add quickly that I am aware of the deep fallacy inherent in this statement. Experience shows that reading does not always make us better or more civilized human beings. The worst rogues in this world are necessarily well-informed, and possibly well-read. Therefore, the impact of libraries on their user populations is questionable. Be that as it may, one can quote Borges: “I do not know if education can save us, but I do not know of anything better.”

Trumbull in the state of Connecticut, is a small town. This place has a post office, a few gas stations and banks, and a handful of shops. As you walk along empty pavements, you see nothing but speeding cars, beautiful bungalows with gardens, and a green backdrop that will turn red in a month's time. Only two buses ply on the Main Street – on which our house is – and their drivers work from 9 to 5.

But this small, undistinguished town has two ubiquitous symbols of modern America: a shopping mall, where you can buy everything except a few necessities of life like aircraft and ships, and a quaint library ensconced in a lovely garden. From outside, the library looks like any other ordinary building, but as you walk in, you see that it has a beautifully designed interior with polished pine wood furniture and hushed shades on walls. Behind the reception desk, the big hall splits into two levels. There are designated areas for the teens, the elderly (books in large print), and numerous computers with Internet access, besides a separate children's library in an adjacent hall. There are large racks of CDs, DVDs, and audio books, but the best part of the library is its stacks where one can browse through books for hours. Since leaving my university in Santiniketan, I forgot what an open-stack library looked like, and the esoteric pleasure of being surrounded by thousands of books .... If you can't find the book you want, the library will get it from whichever library in the state has it, and telephone you to inform that your book has arrived.

At any time of the day, you find many people in the library, reading, or working on the computers. You see very elderly people in mechanized wheelchairs, working people, housewives, students, and small kids with parents. Everyone is engrossed in their work, and you feel that a lot of people in this country read, a fact that you would already have noticed on local trains and at sea beaches. (There are full page advertisements for new books, mostly fiction, in newspapers almost every week.) My mind drifts to the stories I have read back home about the average American's ignorance and lack of general knowledge and I wonder why no one writes about the people I see in the library here. That Americans are generally ignorant is as true as Indians being generally poor. According to the Time Magazine (24/08/09), "They (Americans) ranked global warming last in a national survey of 20 top priorities". But isn't wallowing in another people's weaknesses a cheap ego trip, just like some tourists from richer countries photographing beggars and garbage dumps in India?

Soon after coming to the USA, I noticed that the only thing cheaper here than in India is peeing. This is a country of pay-and-use highways and free toilets, which are usually spotlessly clean. I have recently come to know that the second thing that is free here is the public library. Water is an expensive commodity here, (it costs nearly as much as orange juice), but you pay nothing for membership of a bibliothèque. You don't even have to be a tax payer or a citizen. All they need for membership is a proof that you are a resident of the area.

And how many of them do they have? A visit to the website of the public libraries revealed that every city town or village in the US has one or more libraries. From the website, I discovered that there are not one, but two in Trumbull. The state capital, Hartford, a city of 1,24,062 people, has 11 public libraries. One of them is expectedly named after Mark Twain, the most illustrious son of the city.

The recession that began in 2008 has hit the libraries. There has been some closures and threats of much more closures. But ironically, the recession has also increased library usage as many families cannot afford new books, films, or Internet connection at home. A newspaper has described the public libraries as recession sanctuaries. Fortunately, at this difficult time, the USA has a man in charge whose main resource is knowledge and intelligence, as opposed to birth and bank balance of many of his predecessors. A policy of the federal government is "refurbishing the nation's classrooms and labs and libraries so our kids can compete". Grants to libraries is a part of the economic recovery package.

Fifteen years ago, India had neither shopping malls, nor libraries for the masses. Today, we have the former, many of them, and nobody is bothered about the latter. We can only imagine the impact that would be if we copied the public library system of the USA along with, if not instead of, their shopping malls!

[I was thinking about writing on the topic for some time. The immediate trigger was a post by my young friend Tanmoy on his blog about libraries in New Zealand. Thank you, Tanmoy.]

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Great Plains, the Grand Canyon

6.10 AM: We have come to the circular parking lot behind our Las Vegas hotel, to be picked up for a trip to the Grand Canyon. Somewhat happy and proud to have reached the spot five minutes early, we find that everyone else is already here.

6.20 AM: We are at the office of the Grand Canyon Tour Company, behind a long queue, which Americans call line. I pay cash at a counter. The counter clerk counts and puts the money in his till and says, 'Have a great day!' Doesn't give me a receipt. During my first trip to the US, I used to be surprised by the average American's lack of enthusiasm for paper work. A lot of work is done here on trust.

8.00 AM: The coach is moving at over 120 kilometers per hour. Outside is a vast plain, uninterrupted by trees or human habitation. The horizon is made up of flat low hills. The landscape is full of the azure sky and cirrus clouds. The Great Plains of America, read in books, now in front of my eyes.

8.30 AM: The land outside looks even more arid. We see some hillocks with beautiful bungalows on their slopes. Our driver and guide, Ron announces that some Hollywood celebrities have houses there: 'That pink bungalow belongs to Barbara Streisand … the one there on your right now … is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's … and that house with three palm trees belongs to my girl friend, Nicole Kidman ….'

Ron communicates exceedingly well, and like many Americans, takes the business of cracking jokes seriously. As we approach the Hoover Dam, he announces: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going to stop at a checkpoint now. Please remain seated. A police officer will come on board and check for things like guns and explosives. His name is Jack. You can greet him. You can say, “Good morning, Jack!” or “How are you, Jack” or “Have a good day Jack!” … but please, ... please don't say “Hi Jack!”'

9.00 AM: We have just crossed the Hoover Dam. The land surface has turned sandy, scattered with low bushes. The soil seems too dry to support big trees. The only tree that we see has short, stout trunks and cactus like foliage. Our guide informs these are Joshua trees. (Spelt with a capital J possibly in deference to the original Joshua.) We are in the heart of the Mojave (MO'HAAVI) Desert that stretches across the states of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Ron has deep knowledge of the plants and animals of the desert and talks eloquently about the snakes, lizards, birds, and plants that live here. For example, he tells us exactly how long we would survive if we were bitten by different snakes of the desert.

On a serious note, I have rarely come across someone who can talk with equal or more authority on the natural environment around them. Ron has a particularly soft corner for the California condor, which has been saved from extinction in the recent past.

He has been driving tourist coaches here for the past five years. In the evening, he reads about the desert on the Net. Earlier, he had driven trailer trucks for eight years and had logged a million miles of accident-free driving. A reassuring piece of information.

12.30 PM: During the lunch break, I ask Ron if everyone in his line takes the trouble of looking up the Internet to read about the flora and fauna of the Mojave Desert. He smiles, embarrassed, but with a touch of pride.

1.00 PM: After a most satisfying lunch at an eatery named the Grand Depot Café, we are on the final leg of our journey to the Canyon. We drive along the Route 66, a highway that has a place in American history. We pass a small township that looks straight out of a Western. We see Clint Eastwood sitting on a horse, with a stetson hanging low on his eyes.

1.30 PM: The journey was so enjoyable that we almost forgot about the destination. But we are thrilled to hear the announcement that we are about to reach the Grand Canyon. The coach drops us at a place called the Mather Point on the South Rim of the Canyon. We start walking along what is known as the Kaibab Trail.

1.35 PM: We are looking at a relief map below, the only difference is that it is not man-made and the the scale is 1:1. About 65 million years ago, this plateau was pushed up by 1,500 to 3,000 metres (five to ten thousand feet) because of a massive upheaval within the bosom of Mother Earth. The strata we see were formed below sea level. The river continued to flow, undaunted. The waters of the mighty river together with wind and rain erosion created a most intricate pattern of layered earth. The Grand Canyon is said to be an open book of geology. But ordinary mortals like me can only be overwhelmed by its enormous beauty.

The sun is high above us, on the other side of the gorge. The earth and the rocks are of a wide variety of colours and textures. With the sun going behind and coming out of clouds, and the angle of the incident sunlight changing almost continuously, the landscape alters every minute. Actually, we are watching a movie projected from another world.

The River Colorado is much below. We don't know how deep the chasm is, but it could be two kilometres or more. We cannot see the river most of the time. Only at one point, it shows up. It looks like a shining ribbon of silver. We can only imagine the great force and turbulence of the water down below.

We also come across a hiker's and mule trail. If you aren't fit enough to trek down, but wish to raft on the river below, you can hire a mule ride for going to the bottom of the valley. But there is no chance that we can. The mule ride is booked a year in advance. This is not the finest picture on the subject, but it will give you some idea.

A visit to the Grand Canyon is a humbling experience. Here, you come face to face with the enormity of Nature. It offers you a feast for the eyes, and contemplation for the mind.

Trumbull, Connecticut
17 August 2009