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

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

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A fire then, a fire now

A fire broke out at a slum in front of Muchipara police station at about 7.30 P.M. on 15 March, 1909. I came to know about it from the column 100 Years Ago in The Statesman.

“ … Mr P.N. Mukherji, of the Muchipara thana, drove to Lalbazar and gave information to the Fire Brigade, leaving orders in the mean time that Sub-Inspector A.N. Mukherjee was to proceed to the scene with the hand pumps of the thana. This injunction was carried out and all the available men of the thana played the hose upon the flames, thus controlling the progress of the fire …. The prompt action of the Muchipara thana officers saved the situation …. Mr P.N. Mukherjee brought up the fire brigade with one engine at 8 P.M., and the new arrivals succeeded in gaining complete control over the conflagration. There was a panic in the bustees, and the poor people took out their belongings and stacked them in the road, which soon became knee-deep in water. By 9 P.M., the fire was totally extinguished.”

The use of the Bangla word “bustee” was rather curious. Wasn’t “slum” in the English lexicon one hundred years ago? My Oxford dictionary clarified that the word was born in early 19th century and originally, it was a slang word meaning “room”. Maybe, even in early 20th century, the word didn’t mean “an overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people” (from where an odd millionaire might emerge).

And as I read the story, I compared the present with what used to be. Compared to my childhood days, there are more water taps and toilets in the city slums; one doesn’t see people defecating on the road. But the squalor remains. If anything, the slums are much more overcrowded today: they are bursting at the seams.

And how do our police compare with the great M/s Mukherjis, P.N. and A.N.? Ah! That takes me back to a bleak morning in 2008.

Darkness had just begun to lighten. It was raining heavily when a loud noise woke me up. Some people were trying the break open the shutter of a tailoring shop just across the road. The shop was one in a row of tiny stores with asbestos roofs. Smoke was swirling out of the shuttered outfit. The owner of the shop lives elsewhere; people couldn’t get in. A few young men were trying to break open the rolling shutter with iron rods and stones, braving the heavy downpour. And around fifty onlookers were standing around, soaked to the bones, but generously suggesting more efficient ways of doing the job.

I dialled 101, the Fire Brigade control room. No one answered and I was cut off after some time. I tried again, same result. Then I dialled 100, the police control room. No response. I repeated the sequence twice, without success. Curious, I tried 102, just to improve my general knowledge. The ambulance service, if any, fared no better than the police and the fire brigade. But not everything was lost, at least our telephones were working!

The anxiety of the people on the street was turning into panic. There were several contiguous shanties and stores, including a carpentry workshop. It would be a disaster if the fire spread. People were shouting; many ran out of their homes.

I dialled the directory assistance of Calcutta Telephones, hoping to find out the telephone number of the nearest fire station. “If you want to speak in English, press 1, if you want to talk to your mother-in-law, press 2, … if you want to speak to our customer care executive, press 5.” I pressed five. I was greeted with: “Sorry, all our customer care executives are busy. Please be on the line.” All of them busy at 5 AM? OK, the poor blokes should be given time to wake up. I hung on. My call was timed out. Repeated the process. Same result.

By then, some intrepid young men had climbed atop the shop and started breaking down the flimsy asbestos roof. A big hole on the roof allowed the torrential rain to douse the fire within minutes.

Kolkatans needn’t despair: There are still people who risk injury to save someone else’s property. And if the civic systems fail them, they can count on the saviour above!

18 March 2009

Friday, 7 August 2009

Kolkata calling

Where the sober-coloured cultivator smiles
On his byles;
Where the cholera, the cyclone, and the crow
Come and go;
Where the merchant deals in indigo and tea,
Hides and ghi;
Where the Babu drops inflammatory hints
In his prints;
Stands a City – Charnock chose it – packed away
Near a Bay –
By the Sewage rendered fetid, by the sewer
Made impure,
By the Sunderbunds unwholesome, by the swamp
Moist and damp;

Thus the midday halt of Charnock – more's the pity!
Grew a City.
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed,
So it spread –
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built
On the silt –
Palace, byre, hovel – poverty and pride –
Side by side;
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down. ...

A Tale of Two Cities - Rudyard Kipling

The city of Kolkata has had a knack of attracting strong criticism, mostly for right reasons. Jawaharlal Nehru called her a “city of processions”, and his elder grandson, a “dead city”. Till the time of going to press, such criticisms have had little impact on the city, for the better or for the worse. You can say, she can take them in her stride. Or maybe, she is too thick-skinned to bother!


I was posted at Kolkata at that time. A junior colleague – let me call him Jayaram – telephoned from a remote branch office in a faraway corner of the country with a request to help him during his vacation in Kolkata. He had spent all his life in small towns and was audibly nervous at the prospect on visiting the big bad city. He explained that he didn't wish to visit Kolkata, but had to, as he had some transactions with the netherworld that could be put through only at Gaya. And who doesn’t know – Kolkata is the gateway to both Gaya and the netherworld!

I hadn’t even heard his name and we had no common acquaintances. But that didn’t matter, I would naturally extend the normal courtesies to a colleague. Jayaram asked me to book a hotel room for a few days. When I asked what his budget was, he suggested an impossibly low figure. I reckoned pavement dwellers in cities like Kolkata or Mumbai paid only a little less as bribe to policemen every night.

A semi-furnished flat of our bank was available in a condo where some of our officers lived. Although not strictly according to the rule book, Jayaram and his family were accommodated therein. As he had sounded quite nervous over the phone, I sent the office car to receive him at Howrah station. During his stay, my colleagues helped him in every possible way and made sure that he had a comfortable stay.

The day before he left, Jayaram called at our office on some work. It was our first meeting. I asked him, ‘How was your stay?’

‘Lousy city! So-o-o dirty! Wretched fellows, they are bathing on the road!’ (Sic)

Jayaram said this leaning on my table with so much emotion that I instinctively leaned back; I thought he might puke on the table. But Jayaram left without dirtying anything or wasting his breath to thank anyone.

Shorn of the hyperbole, his description of Kolkata was almost accurate. But what I could have told him, (but didn’t bother to,) was that the kind of reception he got in the lousy city was something that he wouldn't have got in too many places. I also didn't tell him that my colleagues and I had done nothing special for him. Anyone in my position in Kolkata would have done exactly the same. Call it tradition if you don’t have a better word to describe it.

And that too is part of Kolkata, just like the men “bathing” on the road are.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but squalor doesn’t. If there is filth, everyone thinks there is filth, there is never a difference of opinion. But what you want to see depends entirely on you.