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

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Murder of crows!

Crow on a branch -  Maruyama Okyo 
Often, the innocent and helpful are also the most unloved. Crows, for example. No creature is more helpful to humans than the crow. In my city, they clean up more garbage than the municipality does, although unlike the municipality, they do not make you pay taxes.

Contrary to popular belief, crows are non-aggressive and even friendly. If you host a buffet dinner for a mixed crowd of birds, you will see other birds clean up the grains much faster than the crows. Crows don’t have binocular vision. They look at each grain carefully with one eye, then turn their head and observe it again with the other eye, and by the time they are about to peck, the grain has been eaten up by some other bird.

My dear friend Wiki says: “Recent research has found some crow species capable not only of tool use but of tool construction as well. Crows are now considered to be among the world's most intelligent animals.” What Wikipedia doesn’t mention is: crows are democratic too. They practise a form of direct democracy that was in vogue in the ancient Greek city states. At the end of the day, they sit around on the parapet walls of a large terrace to discuss the day’s happenings. In a way, they are similar to our parliamentarians, all of them speak at the same time. It might turn a bit noisy at times but it also shows that freedom of speech is enshrined in the crow constitution too. Since childhood, I have seen with admiration these meetings taking place in the evenings. I watch them even now, in the evening of my life.

Indian Crow
Contrast crows with parrots. In spring, when the peepul tree outside my window blossoms, large flights of noisy parrots arrive from nowhere, drive away all other birds, polish off the fruits in no time, and fly away. They aren’t seen till the next spring. God knows where they spend the rest of the year.

Yet, poets, who are by definition illogical blokes, routinely compose paeans about parrots. The Bangla rhymes for children are full of loving references to them. Crows are absent in literature, except as symbols of death and other miscellaneous dark forces. In Bangla children’s rhymes, so far as I can remember, the only reference to crows is in: Saatta kaake daanr baye / khokonre tui ghare aye. Seven crows row ahoy! Come home, little boy.

Have you noticed, Dear Reader, the crow has been assigned a subaltern role in these lines? It is not surprising; in the caste-ridden mindset of the so-called upper crust of our society, a dark-complexioned person is instinctively associated with “Dalits”. In Cyrus Broacha’s TV show The week that wasn’t,  which is intended to be funny but end up being disgusting most of the time, the person representing Mayawati always has a blackened face! What chance do crows have? “Kaua” is an epithet in Hindi used for the inelegant and the supposedly ugly. The collective noun for owls in English is, surprisingly, a parliament of owls. And for crows? A murder of crows! To cut a long story short, crows are the most unjustly treated living beings.

Since our children grew up and flew away, and particularly since our cantankerous but lovable dog Chorki went to meet his Maker last year, my wife and me live in an empty nest.  Alongside crows, mynahs and sparrows give us company. They too are non-aggressive and friendly, and when some food is on offer, they all come down to our kitchen windowsill. They wait for their turn and never fight. The crow is the shiest of them and the sparrow is the most chipper.

Of all our avian visitors, the most timid and defenceless individual was a mynah. His feathers were unkempt and he had a tired air about him. He would fly on to the windowsill of our kitchen at lunchtime – morning is the lunchtime for birds – and almost lie down. Other birds would eat much faster, leaving him without any nourishment. But he would wait patiently. When everyone else had had their meal and flown away, my wife would offer him something special, which he would accept with an obvious expression of gratitude. If no one paid attention, he would call out loudly and demand food. Over time, he would hop into the kitchen and admonish us if he wasn’t served promptly. My wife concluded he was a senior citizen and deserved to be treated with respect. He too would reciprocate the affection and would eat out of her hand, literally.

Since last month, he has stopped visiting us. A Dios, my feathered friend!

Kolkata, 5 October, 2011

A phrase used by my friend Christopher Hickman in a message worked as a trigger for this piece. Thanks, CH.

The last photograph was clicked by me. The remaining pictures are all courtesy The Wikipedia. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Friday, 16 December 2011

Meeting Joe after long

I met with Joe last night. It was during the yuletide under a starry sky, with Santa hovering unseen somewhere in the background. Curiously, Joe gave me a leather-bound copy of the Bible as a Christmas gift. Equally strange, I felt it was a perfectly normal gift to have from Joe.

And of course, it was normal to dream about a friend who died a few months ago.

What is curious about the gift of a Bible at Christmas? Well, although religion was a subject we never discussed, I don’t think Joe was seriously religious. While we lived close to each other in the same city, I never saw him going to church on a Sunday morning. In short, in the real world Joe giving me a Bible would be as absurd as me gifting him a copy of the Geeta.

Joe and Catherine got their elder daughter admitted to one of the finest Jesuit schools in Trivandrum, a school where securing admission was tough, and parents would consider themselves lucky if their children did manage the feat. Aarti was a lively child with curly hair and sparkling eyes, and I wouldn’t imagine any school refusing admission to such a bright five-year old. But Joe said, ‘You know, at times like these, I turn into a devout Catholic. It helps!’

As I write, lots of insignificant memories flash through my mind. I know not if they would be of any interest to anyone else, but let me write, simply because I love to recollect them.

Once, I went to Joe’s family house in Changanecherry while he was there. While returning from Trivandrum to Calcutta, I reached Changanecherry in the morning with a plan to board a long-distance train from there early afternoon. In those days of glorious uncertainty without mobile phones or Google maps, I had just taken a chance. After getting off the train, I started enquiring about Joe and his dad, a retired professor of English. Soon, I was walking through a drizzle in a laterite country with quaint tiled houses peeping out of green foliage on either side of the road, accompanied by a man in a lungi and followed by a pack of suspicious stray dogs. Joe had to be woken up.

The morning went past like a flash of electricity, and we started waiting for the lunch with a tinge of sadness. It was still drizzling, and getting rather late for my train. After enquiring in the kitchen, Joe came back and said, ‘Looks like you will have to make do with vegetables, the chicken is still alive.’

Instead of a salt cellar, on the dining table there was a small bottle of saline water with a curved nozzle. I don’t remember if the chicken had been dead by then, but I do remember Joe’s mother laid out a fabulous lunch for us. A kind of lunch for which one should gladly miss trains. Later, a couple of times, she sent us home-made fish and prawn pickles through Joe. They were heavenly.

She must be quite elderly now. Why did she have to suffer this cruel blow?

There was a time when many of our friends were posted in Trivandrum at the same time.  All the offspring of our friends were great fans of Joe, who reciprocated their affection in abundance. I do not how Joe struck up such easy friendship with kids. Maybe, he had kept the child in him alive and would let the young fellow out when he was in company of children.

One day, Joe came to our home with Aarti on a Sunday morning. My children, Doel and Tatai were in primary school then, and Aarti was yet to begin schooling. Joe had planned to take the children to the zoo, but wanted to give Aarti a surprise. So he told Doel, ‘Get ready. We are going to the Ized-o-o’, imitating the Mallu pronunciation of z to make sure Aarti didn’t get the drift.

On another Sunday, Joes (his second daughter hadn't arrived then) and us went to the backwater lake at Veli in the outskirts of Trivandrum. After the usual boat ride and fun and frolic, Aarti got over-friendly with a puppy and picked up a scratch in her hand. It was just an affectionate nibble and nothing serious, but we couldn’t take chances. Joe consulted a doctor, who advised him not to worry. Still, Aarti’s parents continued to feel uneasy, naturally. The next Sunday, Joe and me drove down to Veli once again in Joe’s elderly green Ambassador, armed with two large packets of thin-arrowroot biscuits. We gathered all the mongrels of Veli that afternoon and after making sure that Aarti’s friend was hale and hearty, returned home, relaxed.

A few days ago, I was in Bangalore. We had just moved into a flat on the fourteenth floor, facing the east. On the first morning, I woke up early and went to the balcony. As an icy wind ran a shiver through me, I saw the blue darkness giving way to a dull light as the sun rose gingerly through a mist over a huge city dotted with countless buildings. Numerous windows were still throwing out light. It was a panorama where the day met the night, life met death. I thought it would have been great if Joe had been behind one of those windows. He could have been.

Friday, 2 December 2011

My mother

Mani Menon

[After reading Shamsur Rahman’s poem "I never heard my mother singing", my friend Mani shared with me his reminiscences about his mother. I found it fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, it is a beautifully written account of a very special person. Secondly, after reading Mani’s story, it seemed Shamsur Rahman of Bangladesh wrote not only about his own mother, but also about a woman from Kerala who lived in a different time and space. I am honoured to share Mani’s story with my readers. If you haven’t read the poem, I would suggest you scroll down to read it first before you read this.]

Reading your translation of Shamsur Rahman's poignant poem brought back memories of my own mother.  She passed away in 1989, leaving my father, me and my wife totally devastated. Especially my wife.  My mother and she had shared a relationship that transcended the conventional 'saas-bahu' one. They were good friends.

My mother's education, like many young girls' of her time, had come to a screeching halt after she passed her 6th form (Matric). At the age of 21, she came to Bombay as a bride. Having been brought up in Kerala and Madras State, Hindi was a totally alien language for her. Alien, yes. An insurmountable challenge? No! Though she was never a movie buff, she was a walkie-talkie encyclopaedia of old Hindi film songs. You just had to hum a tune and pat would come the name of the movie, the lead pair, the music director and the playback singer/s!

Till date, I haven’t seen anyone read a newspaper the way she did. She would devour ‘The Hindu’ from the masthead to the last page. Naturally, her general knowledge was very good.

She loved to play Scrabble with my father. My father spoke excellent English. My mother spoke just passable English. But evening after evening, she trounced him. When she had free time, she would open the old Oxford Dictionary and learn new words. My father used to be amazed by her victories. I guess he must also have been proud of her. But he never mentioned it.

She was a pure vegetarian, but that didn't stop her from trying out non-vegetarian recipes for us. My wife still refers to my mother's file of exotic recipes cut out from various magazines and also, recipes written in her neat handwriting.

A few years ago, we were watching an old Hindi movie where the eldest 'bhabhi' lets slip to her brother-in-law that she not only speaks fluent English but has even gone to college. She makes him promise that he should never reveal this secret to her husband as he was illiterate! It was quite a moving scene. My wife commented that it reminded her of my mother. When I asked her why, she asked me if I ever knew what my mother had secretly yearned for. I had never thought of asking her.

Had she wanted to pursue her studies? Had she ever asked her father? After marriage, had she ever asked her husband? I knew her as a woman who didn't like going out on her own.  But had she secretly wanted to do so?  Had she wanted to see the latest Hindi movie starring Shammi Kapoor and Saira Banu?  Did she ever need a break from her kitchen and ask my father to buy dinner from a nearby restaurant? Did she want to visit the Taj Mahal and travel all over the country?

It makes me feel so guilty that we had never asked. Not once. “Such a long time I lived with her, but never found out.”

[Would you like to share your memories of your mother? I will be delighted if you do.]

Friday, 25 November 2011

I never heard my mother …

Shamsur Rahman

[Shamsur Rahman, who lived in Bangladesh, was one of the finest Bengali poets. He was also an important voice of reason in Bangladesh, and once suffered a near-fatal assault by Muslim fundamentalists. I sent this translation to him, seeking his permission for publishing it. But when I wrote to him, I didn't know he had gone into a coma. He died a week later, on 17 August, 2006 at the age of seventy-six.]

I never heard my mother singing.
Did she ever sing a lullaby as she tucked me in
In those far-off childhood nights?
I wish I could remember …

Even before her figure reached the fullness of spring
When she was closer to the season of
Picking up mangoes scattered in a storm
In lonely afternoons, evenings,
No tune ever grew up on her like a silent creeper
Lest the elders should hear …

And even in her husband’s home, my mother
Remained far too silent, far too much in the shadows,
And so far as I know, never fell for music.
In between chopping fish or grinding turmeric
Or perhaps in the afternoon, after swabbing the courtyard
And scrubbing bell metal plates sparkling bright
Bending down on the sewing machine, darning a torn shirt,
Hanging clothes on a clotheshorse,
After sending me off to playground with a kiss,
In her moments of solitude, as she pretended to do her hair,
Did she ever hum a tune?
Such a long time I lived with her, but never found out …

It’s as if throughout her life she stored all her songs
In a wooden chest that reminds us of our sorrows.
Presently from its dark inside exudes but rarely,
Not tunes, but the pungent smell of naphthalene. Y

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Kochuthresiamma Joseph

Kochuthresiamma Joseph (KTJ to her friends) passed away in the night of 8/9 November. Although her husband Joseph Mathew and I were colleagues, I never met her. Yet, when I opened a common friend’s text message carrying the news of her death in the small hours of the morning yesterday, I felt a deep sense of bereavement … a sense of loss made more poignant by the stillness of the night.

I came to know her long after Joseph Mathew and I ceased to be colleagues, through her somewhat mysteriously titled blog “Pareltank”. Later, she wrote she had named the blog after the road in which she had lived with her husband and children in Mumbai: Parel Tank Road. Maybe, when she named the blog, she was in that phase of her journey when one prefers to look back, rather than looking ahead.

She taught English at college(s) and wrote beautifully about her friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbours, tailors, in short, the ordinary people she came across. And they came so alive through her writing! While reading her blog, I would be touched by her sensitivity, eye for details, sense of humour and her candour and courage.

She also wrote about the colossal social evils that we have agreed to live with, without losing much sleep. And in these pieces, she came out as a different kind of writer: tough, no-nonsense, and brilliantly incisive. I didn’t agree with her always – needless to say – but I was always impressed by the well-informed analytical mind that was behind the fingers on her keyboard.

I didn’t know Kochuthresiamma Joseph personally while she was alive. Now that she is no more, I know that Mother Earth has lost one of her wonderful daughters. I bid adieu to you, my unknown friend! And my heart goes out to your husband, children, and other close relatives.


Here are the links to three of KTJ's many lovely articles:

Autograph  /   Fair & Lovely   /   Narendra Modi's letter to Anna Hazare

Monday, 7 November 2011

To be a Muslim in India

Yesterday's Indian Express carried these stories.

“Nadeem Saiyed, a key witness to the Naroda Patiya massacre during the 2002 Gujarat riots, was brutally killed on the main street of Juhapura on Saturday. He was stabbed 25 times, just steps away from the anti-terrorism group headquarters.”

Saiyed gave evidence in the Naroda Patiya mass murder case, which had been a ghastly incident even by the standards of Gujarat riots. The official death count was 39, but it was actually much higher. Tehlka magazine’s spy cameras caught some of the mass murderers gleefully boasting – with gory details – about how they had killed defenceless people at Naroda Patiya Housing Society. On Headlines Today, I saw a similar footage, but I am not sure if it is their in-house footage or that of Tehlka.

Saiyed was under police protection since 2009. The newspaper added, “But it is not clear why the PSO [personal security officer?] and another guard assigned to protect him were not around at the time of the incident. … A few days ago, Saiyed met Ahmedabad police chief S K Saikia and sought more security.”

The second story is actually a positive development, but distressing if viewed in totality. A Special court granted bail to all the nine men accused in the 2006 Malegaon bomb blasts in which 37 persons were killed and hundreds injured. The blasts had occurred in and around a mosque in Malegaon in Nashik district during the afternoon prayers on Shab-e-Barat.

The accused, all Muslims, had filed fresh bail applications after a Hindu priest, Aseemanand confessed in late 2010 that the blasts had been set off by Hindu extremists. Indian Express went on to add that the NIA [National Investigation Agency] said that after the confession of Aseemanand, it reviewed the evidence of other investigating agencies and then collected fresh evidence before arriving at its decision not to oppose the bail plea. The families of the nine men insist they are innocent and were framed by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad which first handled the probe, and later, by the CBI, which took over the case.

Gujarat government has systematically, blatantly, and shamelessly tried to derail the process of justice for the 2002 riot victims, including arresting whistle-blower IPS officer Sanjeev Bhatt. The murder of Saiyed is possibly the latest paragraph in that long, sordid saga of sabotage. If a key witness, supposedly under police protection, can be killed, what are the chances that the Naroda Patiya killers would be brought to justice?

As regards the second case, who will pay for the lost years of the men framed by the state?

It cannot be proved mathematically, but there are strong indications that in both cases, the state has proactively hurt a community which has no protection other than from its own tormentors. At least in parts of India today, being a Muslim may guarantee that you won’t get justice from the state.

Fortunately, the Indian story is neither so simple, nor one-dimensional. The same paper carried the following report too.

Nineteen year-old Sweety Abdul lives in a tarpaulin-covered shanty beside the Cross Maidan in Mumbai, where she grew up watching boys playing cricket. She helps her sister run their small unauthorised shoe shop in nearby Fashion Street, a Mumbai flea-market. The shack that she shares with her ailing mother and sister — her father died when she was nine — has little space and no electricity. Sweety dropped out of school after Class VII.

Yesterday was the proudest day of Sweety’s life because she was selected to play for the senior Mumbai cricket team. The Mumbai under-19 coach said she had bailed out her team several times, including against Gujarat when she hit a 50 with her side five down.

Sweety told the newspaper, “(But) when batting, sometimes my worries are not about tackling opponent bowlers, but about the municipality vans which routinely come and try to clear away the stalls. If they raid our shop, it is tough.”

During the monsoon, she prays for rain to go away, as otherwise, her cricketing gear would get spoilt: “Hum dua karte hain barsish zor ki na ho.”

For every game she is paid Rs 2,500, from which TDS is deducted, says Sweety. The difference with men’s Ranji team is stark. The men get over Rs 1 lakh per match. The reporter added, rather poetically, “But there are days when everything seems possible, like when she boarded a flight to return from Ahmedabad or when she gets to stay in an actual room with walls during hotel stays for cricket matches.”

Sweety hopes to find a job, though she knows it won’t be easy. And she wants to see her family in a proper house where they don’t have to worry about thieves and junkies. In the India of Infosys, Sachin Tendulkar, and Narendra Modi, it will be tough, but not impossible. Let’s wish her luck.

[Photo and information - courtesy The Indian Express]

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Ordinary Indian, extraordinary Indian

Deepu has been driving our car for the last two months. A young man of around 30 years, he is reasonably punctual, hardworking, and never says no if he is needed to go to the railway station or airport at odd hours. At the end of the day, he gives me an account of how much has been spent on parking and toll tax, and unfailingly returns the surplus of what was given to him in the morning. In short, he carries himself with dignity.

Yesterday, Deepu had to report for work at 12 noon. He was late by ten minutes and was given a sermon by yours truly. On reaching our destination, I offered him the customary lunch allowance. It was not part of my original deal with Deepu, but it is only fair that I reimburse the expenses if he has to eat out while on duty.

Yesterday, Deepu politely declined the money saying he had had his lunch before coming to our house. ‘That’s the reason I was late’, he added with a shy smile.

Deepu doesn't read newspapers. If he did, he would possibly take the money, keep it quietly, and invest it on his son’s education.

Hasn’t Ms Kiran Bedi, one of the conscience keepers of the nation, done the same thing? She lectures people on value and ethics (I guess in every city that’s connected by air) and her hosts pay for her travel and stay.

The Indian Express has recently reported that she has been travelling Air India paying one fourth of the normal fare as she was a gallantry award winner as an IPS officer, but has been claiming full fare, at times, executive class fare. In some cases, after travelling economy class on private airlines, she claimed business class fare. In one instance, she travelled from Delhi to Hyderabad to deliver a speech and then went on to Chennai to speak at a meeting held by another group. Ms Bedi claimed full fares from Delhi to Hyderabad and Delhi to Chennai from her two hosts! So in effect, she claimed reimbursement for ghost journeys.

Her defence? (A) She did whatever she did with the full knowledge of her hosts and (B) She hasn’t put the amounts into her pocket, but into the pocket of “her” NGO, which uses the money to educate children.

Both arguments are disingenuous, to put it mildly. Firstly, the claim that her hosts know everything is subject to verification. Secondly, and most importantly, the 75% discount that the government of India forces Air India to sacrifice is meant to help a gallant individual. It cannot be used to make a profit for anyone, even if it be an NGO with noble missions. Also, politicians caught taking money can say that they took it for their party! Could that be an excuse?

Thirdly, the tax payers’ money keeps the loss-making Air India alive, and very few of them, beside Ms Bedi, would like their money to go into an unverifiable NGO through fudged accounting.

So who is a better role model and conscience keeper? Deepu Paik or Kiran Bedi?

PS. On 21 October, a former IAS officer and Team Anna member, Arun Bhatia appeared on CNN IBN. He told Rajdeep Sardesai and the rest of the world that many government officers travel economy class and claim business class fare. Nothing happens to them, it is quite normal. I couldn’t believe my ears. Can you, Gentle Reader?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Soumyajit Basu

Soumyajit is a common Bengali first name, but Soumyajit Basu’s wife’s name is rather unusual: Swachhotoya.  A bit of a tongue-twister for people unfamiliar with the Bengali language, the word means a river of transparent waters. His son’s name is even more remarkable, Aranyak, which means of the forests. At home, the boy is called Roddur, Sunlight. Aranyak is also the name of a beautiful autobiographical novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. A forest is the main character in the novel. Soumyajit was fond of Bibhutibhushan and Jibanananda Das, the finest writers on Nature in Bengali, respectively in prose and verse.

Soumyajit grew up in the teagardens of Assam. Since childhood, he was fond of plants, animals, birds, and butterflies. As a child, he had a pet deer. His love for Mother Nature didn’t end after he grew up. Once, when he saw an owl with a broken wing, tears came to his eyes. Owls were his favourite birds. He would nurse birds and squirrels with broken limbs back to health. Even now, there is a tailor bird’s nest in the front veranda of his house, and an old beehive. These were some of the collections from his numerous trips to remote places.

Fond of travelling and trekking, he earned his living by teaching geography in a school, an apt profession for someone who lived with a river and a forest at home. Last October, he went to the Ayodhya Hills of Purulia to watch full moon from the top of the hill. He never came back.

In the treacherous terrain of the Ayodhya Hills, steep peaks hide tiny hamlets peopled by the wretched of the earth. For outsiders, the unmarked alleys, narrow passes and small streams are quite a maze.  The Indian government is irrelevant in the area; it is ruled by Maoists.

Partha Sarathi and Soumyajit
Soumyajit and his friend Partha Sarathi Biswas – both in their thirties – went to trek in this dangerous valley. Partha Sarathi was a police-officer. In the night of 22/23 October 2010, after crossing the unseen border into Maoist land, they were abducted by Maoists.

According to newspaper reports, the reason for their abduction was not clear. Police said Partha and Soumyajit were both involved with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working on wildlife conservation and tribal issues. They had not informed the local police and administration about their visit.

Five months later, two decomposed bodies were found from a jungle near Ayodhya hills in Purulia. The bodies were identified to be that of Partha and Soumyajit through DNA tests.

Why did the Maoists kill them? Partha Sarathi’s police identity would certainly have gone against him. Maybe, the Maoists presumed he was spying. Even if he was, he committed no offense. He was doing his duty. It doesn't justify his murder. If it did, the government forces too would be "justified" to kill suspected Maoists.

While condemning state violence, how do we deal with Maoist counter-violence? How could they kill someone like Soumyajit Basu? Perhaps a group of people can kill, in cold blood, an unarmed man who hasn’t committed any offence only when they cease to be humans. Shorn of their rhetoric, the Maoist movement is exactly that, an exercise in inhumanity. That doesn’t mean the social and economic inequities that breed such violent rebellions are any less inhuman. But let’s keep it aside for another day.

Police often torture and kill politically inconvenient people. State violence against rebels, whether in Kashmir or Chhattisgarh, must stop. In a civilised society, the government must follow its own laws. This is more or less a settled principle. No one, not even the staunchest advocate of the state would say otherwise, at least in public.

But there is a lot of vagueness when it comes to reflecting on Maoist violence. There are sections of intelligentsia that tacitly or openly support the Maoists, which means their violence too, because you cannot think of Maoists without their wanton violence.

No one can fight a war unless they believe they are fighting for a just cause. And the support that Maoists get from well-meaning Left intellectuals certainly helps them to keep their faith alive. Sooner this moral support ends, the better it is.

Bengaluru, 08 October, 2011

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Two poems


Octavio Paz

I am a human, my transient life is
Cocooned in an endless, everexpanding night.
Yet I look up to see
Stars writing on the wall of sky.
I don’t follow their language, but I know
My story too is being written there,
And at this precise moment,
Throughout the sky
Someone is reciting
The letters of my name.

A song of wonder

Rabindranath Tagore

I’ve found my space
In a sky filled with suns and stars,
In a cosmos brimming with life.
From a spring of wonder
Flow out my songs.

In a surge of endless time,
The universe rolls on a tidal wave
And the torrent is felt
In bloodstreams deep in my veins.

Walking on a jungle trail,
I’ve stepped out on grass
My mind leaps out in joy
As a waft of flowers drifts by.
Bliss is scattered all around!

I’ve tried to hear and see
I’ve poured my life out on this world
Looked out for the unknown in the common.
From the spring of wonder
Flow out my songs..

[The Octavio Paz poem has been translated from a Bengali translation of the original by my friend Soumya Shankar Mitra]

Friday, 23 September 2011

Buy shoes and mess up the world

Have you seen this TV advertisement?

A pretty young woman is in a store to buy shoes, along with her husband or boyfriend. She tries out a pair, doesn’t quite like it and decides to go elsewhere. The man drives her to another shop, she isn’t satisfied. Another drive. On the way, the pretty woman takes fancy in a store and asks her partner to stop. Not good enough … another drive. They apparently visit different corners of the town in a smart new car while the sunny day turns into a diffused evening. At the nth store, she decides to go back to the first one.

The ad isn’t trying to sell no shoes. It’s for a new small car that runs on diesel. The punch line is: Drive India, khulke!

A recent newspaper report  said that of the 25 lakh cars sold in India in 2010, 30% were with diesel engines. Industry experts predict that by 2017, when the yearly car sales are expected to cross 56,00,000, 50% will be diesel cars. The share of diesel cars has been increasing over the years because the subsidised diesel is becoming progressively cheaper compared to petrol. (A litre of it costs ₹44 against ₹71 for petrol in my city.) So people prefer to buy diesel vehicles although a mid-size diesel sedan costs Rs.1,00,000 more than its petrol variant.

The government subsidises diesel to keep the cost of rail and road transportation low; and of agricultural products, as farmers need diesel to run irrigation pumps. But the unintended beneficiaries, owners of diesel cars and fuel-guzzling SUVs, are cornering more and more of the subsidy that goes into diesel. According to the report, cars have already become the second biggest user of diesel. Cars use 15% of diesel in the country, as against 12% by buses and agriculture each, 10% by industries, and 6% by the railways. In absolute terms too, the subsidy is astronomically large. The government charges excise duty of ₹14.35 on a litre of petrol, but only ₹4.60 on diesel. This means it pays every Indian, including Mr Mukesh Ambani, ₹9.75 for every litre of diesel purchased. (Whether there should be any subsidy on petrol either is another question.)

Notionally, the poor, many of whom wouldn’t see the inside of a car in their lifetime, are paying the price of the subsidy as otherwise the amount could go to some poverty alleviation programme. Should this go on?

There are two other reasons why this should stop immediately. Diesel is a dirtier fuel than petrol. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), diesel engines emit toxic air contaminants and human carcinogens. So, the environment too is paying the price for some people buying fancy shoes.

Secondly, global warming is a fact we are living through. Summers are distinctly hotter than what they were in my childhood, that is, fifty years ago. The monsoon rains are erratic, and many more cyclones hit us than earlier.

As automobile emission is a major contributor to global warming, governments (including local governments) are expected to introduce disincentives to reduce the use of personal cars. In an article in New York Times (26 June 2011), Elisabeth Rosenthal writes, “many European cities are … creating environments openly hostile to cars.” Cities like Vienna, Munich, and Copenhagen have closed vast stretches of roads to automobiles. Barcelona and Paris have widened bike lanes to reduce space for cars. If you drive a vehicle in London or Stockholm, you pay huge charges just to enter the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon emission may enter. “The methods vary, but the mission is clear – to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation”, writes Rosenthal.

One wonders if Indians live on the same planet. Although queer people like our former environment minister Mr Jairam Ramesh make contrary noise from time to time against fuel-hungry big cars and Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs), the Indian ruling elite seems deaf and blind to the need to discourage personal vehicles and encourage zero-emission traffic. There are no bike lanes in Indian cities. Forget bike lanes, you don’t even have footpaths in many cities, particularly in the newly developed areas. You are forced to take an auto even for a short distance which you would otherwise walk.

On the contrary, governments offer cheap – if not free – land and tax breaks to car manufacturers so that they may flood our roads with low-priced cars. As small diesel cars become popular – they certainly will – there will be a lot more auto emission. Both central and state governments must make a beginning to turn the tide.

There is a simple way to do so. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, an NGO that has been fighting for the environment, in Denmark diesel cars are taxed higher to offset the lower cost of fuel. And so it is in Sri Lanka. If the Indian government follows suit, it can recover the subsidy paid on the lifespan of a diesel car / SUV upfront. This will also work as a disincentive against environment-unfriendly vehicles.

There was some noise on this issue a few months ago. The government reportedly considered differential pricing for diesel to be sold to cars. Our finance minister declared it was not practicable. He hasn’t told us why diesel cars and SUVs cannot be taxed higher.

[Photograph courtesy Wikipedia]

20 September 2011

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Corrupt Indians

I know, the combination of the heading of this article and the picture above is rather jarring. In this short essay, I am going to connect the two. Let me begin with a few true stories.

Sometime in the late 1990s, a remote town in the USA: Two Indian students are booked for speeding. They quickly offer a bribe to the police officer. After a long hard look, the officer says, ‘During my twenty years in this job, I’ve been offered bribe thrice. On every occasion, it was an Indian.’

If there has been one Bengali political leader above controversy, it was late Benoy Krishna Chowdhury. A minister for about 20 years since the first Left Front government in 1977, he was the chief architect of the land reforms and Panchayet Raj of Bengal. Try as you might, you won’t find one news report that questions his integrity. While Chowdhury was alive, one day, a friend of mine was on a local train where three young men were chatting.

One of the boys said Benoy Chowdhury and he were from the same village and his family was close to the leader. Chowdhury used to visit their house often. When he became a minister, the boy’s father took him to the former and requested him to find a job for his son. The boy went on to add, with a sense of injury, ‘Would you believe it? He told us on our face he wouldn’t be able to help.’

Hearing this, the passengers who were following the story were upset. The general consensus was that the minister had done something morally wrong. My friend joined the conversation and asked, ‘Do you seriously believe it is a minister’s responsibility to find jobs for people known to him?’

Everyone around thought it was.

The third incident, circa 2006: My wife has applied for a passport. A police inspector is in our Kolkata residence for verification. We have furnished all the documents required as per rules, but the inspector isn’t satisfied. After asking several irrelevant questions, he insists that my wife produce proof that her late father indeed worked in the city mentioned in her school leaving certificate.

We protest, ‘Do you know any married woman who carries her late father’s employment records? Can you prove where your father worked?’

The inspector says nothing. He drinks tea and leaves.

For us, it would have been better to pay him the money he expected. Maybe, two hundred rupees would have sufficed. Because of our pig-headed response, we had to run around different government offices during the next two months. We paid over five times the amount on taxi fare alone.


Barring exceptions of people paying under the table to get illegal benefits, no one pays bribes unless forced to. Greasing the babus’ palms is almost mandatory in government offices like the public vehicles departments, property registries, commercial tax offices, offices that issue life support systems like SC/ST certificates, ration cards etc. The last story is about one such department. But the other two indicate the extent of corruption among the Indian middleclass in general.

A vast majority of our people is too poor and wretched to be corrupt. Things haven’t changed for them. In contrast, a market driven aspirational change defines our middleclass today. We have started believing “Greed is good!” Men haven’t become hedonistic in the literal sense that they are only after wine, women and song, but, they are certainly after wealth and more creature comforts. This “maximalist” lifestyle is surely a breeding ground of corruption. When everyone wants to be rich in a poor country, the competition is intense and value and ethics have to be thrown out of the window. Arvind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger brings this out in morbid details.

Commodification of education and healthcare has made things worse. People belonging to the erstwhile “noble” professions of teaching and medicine are the worst mercenaries of our time. Everything can be and has to be bought. Cutting corners has become a way of life. We pay illegal donations to get our children admitted to engineering / medical colleges and brag about it. We have no qualms about currying favour with the powerful people we know. We would rather pay the traffic policeman Rs.50 than pay a penalty of Rs.100.

Further, as there is no moral peg to hang our thoughts, we don’t even realise that we too are corrupt. The same people who do these and much worse things also support Anna Hazare and demand that an elaborate structure be set up to catch and punish the corrupt.

In India, there exists massive angst particularly after a series of mega scams of 2009-10 and a cavalier central government’s reluctant, half-hearted efforts to book the guilty. (Some state governments like Karnataka are equally bad.) The Anna team – the core team has only 22 members – deserves acclaim for giving a concrete shape to the anguish of millions. A young friend of mine, Anirban Dasgupta writes that the good thing about the Anna movement

"… has been that people in various places (yes, only urban though) have come out to speak about a system that ails our society. … we, the common people of India, have raised our voice and have lent strength to the movement. Had we remained indifferent (like we are to the fast of Irom Sharmila in Manipur), Anna would have gone nowhere.
"The very belief that yes we can change a system or force our parliament to adopt a law which gives more power to the common man can give a lot of confidence to the people."

Yes, it is certainly a triumph of democracy. All talks suggesting that parliamentarians can do as they please until the next election are pure hogwash. Also, if this movement led to a more efficient system to tackle corruption, it would be a big step forward. (In Karnataka, Mr Santosh Hegde has shown what a Lok Ayukta can do.)

But as many have pointed out, the Hazare group is strangely quiet on corporate corruption, the mother of all scams. Also, they are only against politicians and governments, without taking any ideological position on other serious issues. The massive erosion of values of our time doesn’t seem to be on their agenda. I do not know how the value deficiency in our society can be addressed, but I believe without that there is no emancipation. This is the crux of the matter. We have to change the way we think.

Let us recall that in 1974, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) began a movement against corruption and poor governance. It shook the country, led to the Emergency, and ultimately, the end of Congress rule at the Centre and in many Indian states.

Have things improved in the last 37 years? The economy has become bigger, we have many more billionaires today, and the middleclass is much better off. But the poor continue to live a life of misery. Instead of going down, graft has increased manifold. With every passing year, the quality of governance is becoming worse, despite some welcome changes like the Right to Information Act.

In many ways, the situation now is worse than in the time of the JP movement. No, I don’t say that limitations of the JP movement are responsible for the downward slide, although some of JP’s lieutenants have metamorphosed into big time thieves. The slide is mainly due to the model of “development” that our rulers have chosen. What I am trying to say is that changing laws wouldn't make a difference. We need to change our society as a political unit at a much deeper level, in a more fundamental way.

Like the JP movement, the Anna movement too ignores the bigger issue of value deficiency in the society. It too may lead to just a change of regime and no change in substance.

Kolkata, Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday, 9 September 2011

The dream is over

Meri prem kahani khatam huyi
Mera jeevanka sangeet gaya
Mera sundar swapna beet gaya

My love story has come to an end, 
So has the music of my life. 
The beautiful dream is over.
In the no-man’s land between boyhood and manhood, we had only boys for company. Having studied in a same-sex school and given the social norms of the 1960s, my friends and I had hardly any feminine companionship outside family. So we often fell in love with film actresses. In The picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde said that everyone falls in love with a film star at some time or other. I guess we did so once too often … with the beautiful sexy heroines of Hindi films, where there was an abundance of beauties.

When we began watching Hindi films – of course on the sly – Madhubala and Nargis, the two most beautiful women to have ever walked this earth were no longer on the scene and Meena Kumari, who would die in 1972 because of alcoholism, was past her prime. But those who were there were no less ravishing. The reigning divas were Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, and Sadhana Sivadasani. We didn’t ignore the lesser stars either – like Nanda, Saira Banu, and Asha Parekh. Each one of them was beautiful in their own way and radiated charm and spirit. And one cannot forget the vivacious Anglo-Burmese actress Helen, who was the permanent cabaret dancer in all Hindi films of the sixties!

Describing feminine beauty has been a challenging task for writers over the ages. Only the best in the business have made a decent job of it occasionally. The lesser ones have made a hash of it regularly. Therefore, instead of trying your patience, Dear Reader, I’ve pasted some photographs above. In the unlikely event that you don’t recognise them, they are, from the left: Nanda, Waheeda, Helen, and Sadhana. 

I fell in love with them and a few others regularly, one at a time, depending on who was the heroine of the last film I’d seen:  Sadhana in Mera Saya, Nanda in Ek phool do maali, Waheeda in Guide, and so on …. They exuded charm and sexuality and filled my personal sky with a pleasant amorous glow. (Incidentally, while reviewing Mera Saya, a a film critic of The Statesman chose to disambiguate that the film had  nothing to do with women's underclothing!) 

A few days ago, a friend forwarded a recent picture of these beautiful women. This is how they look now. Believe it or not, these are the same persons, Nanda, Waheeda, Helen, and Sadhana.

It hurt that my former lovers look so pitiably unglamorous now. What the picture shows are not just ineluctable signs of aging, but something much more complex. In it, Helen looks spritely, although a touch overweight. Waheeda is barely passable, but not a shadow of her past. The other two beauties of yore have turned into worse than overworked working-class women, ravaged by time, devoid of beauty or spirit. Life would have taken a heavy toll on them. I couldn’t help reflecting that many of my female acquaintances of their age, who are ordinary middleclass class women, are a lot more beautiful today. 

The present appearance of the past stars possibly reflects the stormy lives some of them have lived. Underneath a world of glamour and wealth, there would be stories of broken relationships, exploitation by male colleagues, loneliness, incompleteness, and alcoholism.  Far from the madding, cheering crowds, they would have had to deal with the haunting silence of personal tragedies. 

Of the four women, Helen, who is Salman Khan’s step mother, seems a happy woman. What about the rest?

There were many suitors for Nanda, but she turned them down. In 1992, a middle-aged Nanda got engaged to film director Manmohan Desai, who committed suicide in 1994 by jumping off his own building. Nanda has remained unmarried. Today, she lives in Mumbai and is accessible only to family and close friends. 

Sadhana married film director R.K. Nayyar in 1965. The couple had no children. Since her husband’s death in 1995, she has been living alone in Mumbai as a tenant in an apartment building. Recently, she has complained that a builder is threatening her to vacate her ground-floor flat. 

Guru Dutt, who made brilliant films within the parameters of popular Indian cinema in the 1950s, was born Vasant Kumar Shivashankar Padukone. His tumultuous relationships with a Bengali singer, the numero uno of the time, Geeta Roy, and the Urdu speaking Waheeda Rehman from Hyderabad, destroyed the former.

Since her marriage with Guru Dutt in 1953, Geeta Roy has been known as Geeta Dutt. Although the hugely talented husband-wife team produced some of the finest Hindi songs, their paradise was to be lost soon. In 1956 a little-known Telugu actress Waheeda made her Hindi debut in Guru Dutt's C.I.D. Dutt, who was extremely disciplined in his professional life, was thoroughly undisciplined in his personal life. He smoked and drank heavily and kept odd hours. Dutt’s affair with Waheeda drove Gita Dutt to alcohol.  Guru Dutt didn’t discover bliss in infidelity either. He committed suicide in 1964, reportedly in his third attempt, after Waheeda had drifted out of his life.

It’s poignant that Geeta lent her voice to Waheeda who sang some of the achingly romantic songs to Guru Dutt on screen. (The song used as the epigraph of this article is not one of them.)

Geeta Dutt was shattered after the death of her estranged husband. By then, she had destroyed her career and had been virtually out of work. Her attempt to resurrect her singing was only partially successful. She, like Meena Kumari, drank herself to death. She too died of cirrhosis of liver in 1972, four months later.

Life could not have been easy for Waheeda Rehman either. Her second film with Guru Dutt, Kaagaz ke phool was about a successful film director's decline after he fell in love with his lead actress. Over time Waheeda drifted apart from Dutt, although they continued to work together into the 1960s. She played the second female lead in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam "under some strain". They broke up after the film failed to get critical acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival in 1963. Guru Dutt was to die soon.

A decade later, Waheeda married a relatively unknown actor, Kamaljit and the couple had two sons. Kamaljit too died in 2000. 

Whatever I have written above has been sourced from the Internet. Part of it may be inaccurate, but there is no denying the fact that Waheeda, Nanda, and Sadhana lost their lovers/husbands early. And their faces are the best testimony of the struggles they have gone through. It is sad that the women who kindled warmth and desire in a million hearts had to live with heartbreaks and lack of warmth.

They remind me of a line of the Bengali poet Sukanta Bhattacharya:  You are like those who turn on the street lights every evening, but have to live through long dark nights in their own homes.

Friday, 09 September 2011

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Change in the air?

In the long-distance state transport bus my seat was behind the conductor’s. As it hit the highway, I tapped the conductor on the shoulder and asked him to stop in front of the college where I work three days a week. I always do that and fall asleep for the remaining two hours of the journey.

‘Do you teach there?’ Asked the conductor.

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Sir, please take this seat.’ So saying, he moved away from the window seat next to the door and offered the place of honour to me. It was embarrassing, but I couldn’t say no.

My father often quoted a Sanskrit adage: Swadeshe pujyate raja, vidwan sarvatra pujyate. The king is worshipped in his own kingdom, but the scholar is revered everywhere. It was dad’s way of inspiring me to take studies seriously. Values have changed since I was a child. One’s worth no longer depends on how much knowledge one has, but on how much one has in bank. But the delusion that teachers are scholars has survived. The bus conductor obviously believes both.

‘Sir, what time do you return?’

‘Shortly after five thirty in the evening.’

‘While returning, I should reach the college around that time. Please note my phone number. When you are free, give me a call and check where I am. You know, buses don’t sometimes stop at that place.’

I was amazed. In West Bengal, you are delighted if government employees do what they are paid to do. Extension of such courtesies is unheard of. As I called his number to save it, I came to know his name is Tridib Datta. An enlightening conversation followed.

I asked, ‘How are the long-distance routes doing? I heard they are profitable?’

‘That depends on how we run them. We have screwed up the corporation. People used to run buses when they felt like. But things are changing.’

Well, the flavour of the season in West Bengal is parivantan, change. We have just shown the door to a supremely inefficient, corrupt and self-serving regime and brought in a brand-new yet-to-be-tested government. I got interested.

‘What exactly is changing?’

‘You know, drivers and conductors would take buses on long routes. Instead of coming back the next day, they would take a day off and return the next day. No one would question. Such things have stopped.’


‘Yes. We get fat pay packets these days. We have no excuse not to do our work.’

‘It is a pleasure meeting you, Tridib Babu, but do many of your colleagues share your views? Is it becoming the norm?’

‘I have just heard this from a colleague in CTC (Calcutta Tramways Company). A conductor had been promoted to the officer’s cadre. Over time, he became a key man. No purchase order would go out without his approval. Last week, he was handed back his conductor’s bag. His promotion had been illegal. He is trying to protest, but he can’t escape.’

Later, in the evening, my phone rang while I was packing up. It was Tridib Babu. He called up to check if I had finished.

Those who write on current affairs like I do, have written thousands of articles on how incorrigibly evil government servants are. Through this true story, I salute a wonderful government employee and a fine gentleman. He gives us hope that things might actually change!

Saturday, 03 September 2011

Saturday, 13 August 2011

For your good health

How I wish this convenient tool for good health was still available! (Photo courtesy a friend)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Sunrise over the Tiger Hill

Rhododendrons grow on mountains. Like many Bengalis from the plains who had never seen them, I had an emotional bond with the flower because of these lines of Rabindranath Tagore:
We have not a nook of golden bloom
Or an alley strewn in the jungle gloom.
Swiftly in the evening draught
A nameless flower spreads its waft
On arrogant branches of a plant
Rhododendrons with regards scant
Look right through
The sunlit clouds in the morning blue.

(It must be recorded here that the original in Bangla is infinitely more beautiful.)

When I visited Darjeeling for the first time, we went on an excursion from our university, more precisely, the Physics department.

It was November. The air was nippy and rhododendrons were in full bloom. The first thought that came to my mind after reaching Darjeeling was that for once, one couldn’t accuse Tagore of poetic excesses. Rhododendrons are big, pinkish read, and unlike most flowers, don’t look delicate. There is something bold and beautiful about them. They seemed to be wild flowers that deigned to be around in a human habitation, as incongruous as an eagle in an aviary!

We stayed at Shailabas (The Mountain Abode) which was at a higher level of the hill town. After a day of fun and frolic, we would wearily trudge the last stretch of the ascent, eager to get under the four blankets allotted to each one of us. There was no heating – nights were cold, to put it mildly.

On the morning we were to visit the Tiger Hill to see the sun rise, we had to start early, maybe, around four. The place was 11 kilometres away near Ghoom. At 8,500 feet (2,600 metres) it was the highest point in the area; we had to go uphill all the way along a road on which only jeeps plied.

We had organised seven jeeps for the entire party. Six of them arrived in time. When we enquired about the seventh, none of the drivers gave an answer. No assurances, no excuses. It was too early to get another vehicle.

A few of us, self-appointed "leaders", had to pay the price of leadership. While the rest of the team left, we had to stay back. Cursing the unknown driver and shivering in the freezing cold, we looked out from under the hotel portico, hoping to catch a glimpse of headlights on the winding road below. There were none.

Minutes trickled into an hour. The only bright spot in the dismal story was that Amitabhada, a few years my senior, had very thoughtfully saved a bottle of brandy for such contingencies. We took swigs in turn, and soon, stopped feeling the chill.

When the jeep finally arrived, it was too late for the sunrise. A stout Ghurkha staggered out from behind the wheels. Thoroughly drunk and reeking of country liquor, he could barely stand.

When the jeep hit the road after a heated exchange between the driver and his clients, we realised our folly. Our man was not only drunk, but also mad. The sharply winding, steeply ascending road had a precipitous chasm on the right. But the driver seemed to think it was a highway during a bandh. He didn't look ahead; instead, he put his head out of the window on the right. Watching the edge of the road with bleary eyes, he drove at full throttle.

Icy wind rushed in through the open window and hit us like shrapnel. We thought we would not only see no sunrise at the Tiger Hill, but nowhere else either. However, there is something called destiny in everyone’s life. You were destined, Dear Reader, to read this story.

When we arrived at the Tiger Hill observation deck after covering the distance in a quarter of the usual time, it was still dark. The deck was a big semi-circular green patch with a railing, flat as a table top.

As we trained our eyes towards the east, darkness was reluctantly making way for light. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. On turning back, what I saw was worth risking one’s life for. The western sky had horizontal bands of myriad colours: grey, purple, orange, golden, inky blue … a combination of colours that you see nowhere else. The mighty Himalaya was waking up for yet another day, like he had done for millions of years. The Kanchenjunga caught fire with the first rays of the sun. There was no mist. We could see the Everest far behind. It looked much shorter because of the shape of the earth. In a few moments, countless peaks of the Himalayas started glittering in all their glory. The mighty mountain stood before us in silent grandeur.

At moments like that we know how insignificant we are, how meaningless our concerns are. Without knowing, we bow to the great Force of which we are but infinitesimal fragments.

There are a few things that you must experience if your life is to be complete. Sunrise over the Tiger Hill in a clear morning is one of them.

Kolkata / Thursday, 04 August 2011

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Paul Allen, the Idea Man

Alongside a few colleagues, I started fiddling with personal computers (PCs) in 1987. The first IBM PC rolled out of a plant in a small town, Boca Raton in Palm beach, Florida in 1981 and soon became the industry standard. Later, only “IBM compatible PCs” would see the light of the day. These machines would reach our corporate office in a small town in India within a few years of their launch.

After having used the typewriter for many years, I found the new machine fascinating. Typing, correcting, editing, everything you could do by looking at a screen; you could chisel your language to perfection. You could store tonnes of text and take any number of clear prints. That was not all: A few hours of tinkering with a utility called dBase III, and you got a system that would do in one hour what an army of clerks would do in one week.

We, who used the machines, were the beneficiaries. The benefactors were many, who developed PC hardware and software on the other side of the globe, in the US of A. Paul Allen, 21 and Bill Gates, 19, were entrepreneurs who, with tremendous prescience, dreamed of putting “a computer in every home” at a time when computers were huge, unwieldy, monstrously expensive machines that were accessible only to governments and top research institutes. It was an arena reserved for scientists, where a few passionate hobbyists, aka nerds, sneaked in from time to time. Let alone common people, even commercial houses hardly used them in the 1970s.

IBM PCs and their clones changed it all. Originally known as microcomputers, they were first built around the microprocessor or microchip called Intel 8086. Subsequent models were based on Intel 8088 and Intel 80826. With every new avatar, we experienced exponential increase in data storage capacity and speed of computation. As users, we were a tiny part of a revolution that would later change the way people keep in touch, buy movie tickets, gather news, fall in love, in short, the way people live.

We saw these changes as audience in a grand theatre. Paul Allen’s autobiography, Idea Man, gives us a glimpse into what happened backstage, and in the greenrooms. The story is extraordinary and the book, particularly the first half (174 pages), which covers the two young men’s tryst with destiny and the setting up of Microsoft, is as riveting as the finest thrillers by Agatha Christie.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates were together at an exclusive private school (equivalent to public school in India) in Seattle. For them, it was a stroke of fortune that the school decided to install a terminal link to a General Electric mainframe computer at a distant location. The two friends used the terminal to teach themselves programming and begged borrowed and stole to get as much computer time as possible, wherever and whenever available. Before he was twenty, Allen had
“working familiarity” with ten computers, ten high-level languages, nine machine-level languages, and three operating systems.
A brilliant student and a rather conceited young man, Gates went to Harvard to study maths and got a rude shock to discover that he was not the smartest, but just one of the top students. One of his maths professors “got his PhD at sixteen.” He shifted to applied maths. Allen got a “dead-end job” nearby, but their obsession with programming continued.

In 1975, an unknown New Mexico entrepreneur Ed Roberts launched the MITS Altair, the world's first microcomputer. It was based on the microchip Intel 8080. But the world's first microcomputer was less than a fancy toy as strangely, Ed didn’t have a clue about the software that could run the machine. Allen and Gates, assisted by a freshman Monte Davidoff, worked like mad to write the software, technically known as “the interpreter” that would enable the machine to run programs written in the BASIC programming language.

The genius of Allen and Gates made it possible although they were at the other end of the continent and had no access to the Altair computer or even the 8080 chip. Their experience of working on a failed previous project helped.

The day Allen flew down to Albuquerque, New Mexico to demonstrate their software (Altair BASIC), he knew it might not work on the Altair machine. Also, he had forty dollars on him and no credit card. Ed Roberts had booked him in a hotel that cost fifty dollars a night. But in the knowledge industry about to change the world, what you had in your head was more important than what you had in your bank. The software worked, Allen bagged the contract and Microsoft (MICROcomputer + SOFTware) was born.

In 1980, when IBM was looking for an operating system (the basic software on which computer programs operate) to run its new personal computer, they approached Microsoft. Microsoft hadn’t developed any operating system earlier, but they didn’t let go the opportunity. A small Seattle based company had developed a rudimentary operating system, QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System). Allen bought it at a throwaway price and developed it into MS-DOS. It was not easy. The Microsoft team sweated blood and delivered. The rest is history: the IBM PC became the benchmark in an ever-expanding industry and DOS became its operating system. As is commonly said, with MS-DOS, Microsoft acquired a licence to print money.

Underneath the teamwork, there was tension. Bill Gates, a ruthlessly focused man who would reach his goals at any cost, was not an easy person to get along with. He could be rude and cantankerous. In their team, Allen was mainly the thinker and Gates, the doer. Allen did the research and scanned the horizon for new opportunities. Gates ran the business. Their partnership, which began as with a 50:50 sharing of profits, became 64:36 in favour of Gates in course of time. The greed or jealousy between the two men could have been between any two bania partners. Yet, the story of the friendship and competition between these two brilliant men is no less absorbing than the story of Microsoft itself.

After spending eight feverish years in developing Microsoft into a behemoth, Allen was down with Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 29. Although he recovered, he never went back to an active role in the company.
The remaining half of the book deals with the other half of his life till 2010. A 30% ownership of Microsoft meant he is an enormously rich man. He hasn’t used his wealth like any other eccentric billionaire. Rather, he has used his wealth like an eccentric billionaire who has a genuine, umbilical connection with science in particular and knowledge in general, and who has varied interests ranging from basketball to rock music to wild life.

Although being from the third world, one finds the idea of owning a seven-storey, longer-than-a-football-ground yacht ridiculous and put-offing (Paul Allen has got one), one cannot but bow to a man who spends millions to map the brain and the spinal cord and puts the findings in the public domain, and sets up libraries and museums, and funds SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Paul Allen is a brilliant entrepreneur who played a key role in a technology revolution which will surely rank as a watershed in the history of our civilization. He is also tremendously inquisitive about the frontiers of science, and wants to be a part of any project that might achieve a breakthrough into the future. And he says, “From my youth, I’d never stopped thinking in the future tense.”

Paul Allen - Idea Man, published by Penguin Books Limited, London, 2011