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

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 saarĂ©!’

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: ‘SaarĂ©, 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