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

Monday, 30 May 2011

The King’s Gift

Santanu Dasgupta

By early afternoon, the air had turned hot even in November. I wearily bid farewell to my last guest of the day – the day of our house-warming in Trivandrum. It was a big day for  a small mortal like me to finally be able to move into our own house. Bye-bye landlords! No more threats and tantrums please!

Children promptly started playing in the open ground in front of the house. The gates were yet to be fixed and it made their work of fetching the ball from our compound that much easier. My wife and I sat on the floor of our new house, fondly admiring the glitter all around …

‘Bring me my share of food’, a voice boomed from the court-yard. Startled, we went out to find an old woman squatting on the yard. She had tied her hair in a bundled knot. Even in tattered clothes, she had an air of authority about her. A dusty sling-bag was her only possession, a garland of dried flowers hung loosely around her neck.

Children playing outside ran in to shoo her away. (It was not their fault: that’s what we had taught them all along – don’t trust strangers, don’t allow trespassers, and so on …). I dissuaded them and asked the new guest to come under the shade of our portico. After all, with all her rags and dust she still was a guest on that auspicious day. I served her food on a platter and politely bowed to request her to have it and bless our new home.

At once, tears welled up in her eyes. She had a hasty meal with tears still streaming down. I stood in silence.

As she finished her meal, she muttered something to herself that I believe was a good-wish in Tamil. And then, she dug deep into her sling-bag to fetch out a broken comb, a handful of peanuts, some rags, and finally a very well-dried coconut. The coconut was by far the best thing that she had in her possession.

When she offered me her gift of the dried coconut, someone in me had already started to recite Tagore’s poem Kripon (The Miser). [A beggar once met a King. Strangely, the King, instead of giving the beggar anything, begged to have something from him. Surprised, the beggar offered him just a grain of rice from his rag bundle. After returning home, he found that one grain in the bundle had turned into gold].

But here was my “King” who had given me, in return for my gift of just a few morsels of food, the best of all that was there in her possession!

After uttering a few more blessings, she broke into a light laugh and trotted away gaily, the garland swinging on her neck like a flag of timeless benevolence.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

An obituary to a selfless drunkard

Drunkards occasionally beat up their wives, sell family silver, don’t take care of their children and so on. But despite the bad press, they are usually the most genial of men. And perhaps wise too. A news story that I read this morning reminded me of one of them.

He was the husband of a nurse who looked after my mother while she was terminally ill. The nurse’s name was Suchitra, but we never got to know her husband’s name because she always referred him as “the Drunkard”. Whenever she found a pair of receptive ears, she would pour down her angst. The Drunkard, she said, contributed nothing to the family, while she slogged seven days a week and saved for her daughter’s wedding. She had already bought some gold, a few silk saris and even some teak wood at an auction, to be converted into furniture, an essential part of dowry in a Bengali middle class wedding.

But to be fair to her husband, he was hardly a violent person – he wouldn’t even quarrel with his wife or two offspring, who were young adults. On the contrary, his wife would often give him an earful, as all wives do. Generally, he was exceedingly nice, and everyone except Suchitra seemed to like him.

The Drunkard – we were told – was a skilled hand, who worked in a plywood factory. He would go for work only if he needed money. Fortunately, he needed money often and hence, would report for duty quite frequently. He would be away for days, and at times, weeks and return home for rest and recuperation only when he was exhausted by his binges. While he was at home, Suchitra used to be tense; she never knew what he might do.

Their home was in a cluster of cottages that had a common electricity connection. Every month, the residents of the cluster would pool together and pay the electricity bill. For a few months, the Drunkard, during one of his extended sober phases, volunteered to pay the bill. One day, the residents of the cluster received a disconnection notice from CESC, the Calcutta Electricity Supply Company. By then, Suchitra’s husband had vanished. She borrowed money to pay three months’ electricity charges for all, together with the penalty.

On another occasion, a day after he returned home, Suchitra came to our house beaming with joy. She was somehow convinced there had been a profound change in her husband. Said she, ‘The astrologer has done the trick. He’s promised not to touch a bottle in the future: not even a milk bottle.’

A few days later, her husband vanished again when no one else was at home. ‘And do you know’, she told us the next day, ‘the Drunkard took away all the teakwood from under my cot on a rickshaw van. When a neighbour enquired, he said he had fixed Rani’s marriage and was taking the wood to a factory to make furniture.’

When Rani’s marriage did happen, we were invited and I got a chance to meet him. To be honest, I found in him a charming man with a fine sense of humour. He was well informed, read the newspaper meticulously and could talk on many subjects. We kind of became friends. Later, he met me a couple of times to “borrow” money to tide over some dire necessities.

I always thought men like him who keep away from the rat race and live life on their own terms deserve our admiration. These are the people who laugh at the meaningless toil that the rest of the humanity goes through, and knows that in the end, everyone ends up in the same place.

Going back to where I began, this is the news that I read this morning in the Deccan Herald.

Nagaraj, a shop owner and neighbour of Muthyalappa at Krishnanandanagar spotted a cobra in his shop on Sunday evening. He and Muthyalappa [55 years] caught it and decided to release it in a forest. They put the Cobra in a bag and rode towards a forest on Nagaraj’s bike. On the way, the snake bit Muthyalappa. Nagaraj stopped and hurriedly released the cobra. 

He gave Muthyalappa Rs 500 and advised him to go to a hospital. But instead, Muthyalappa went to a liquor shop, got drunk, went home and slept. He died in his sleep.

Both these gentlemen are heroes in my eyes, particularly Muthyalappa. (Nagaraj perhaps had an obligation to justify his name.) How many men will take the trouble to carry a cobra on a motorbike to release it in a forest, instead of just killing it cruelly? Secondly, how many, like Muthyalappa, will go on a pilgrimage to the temple of Bacchus instead of visiting a hospital?

May his soul rest in peace.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Witnessing history being made

[Dear Reader, I was off-blog for a long time as I was suffering from a serious bout of teaching. You can count on regular posts here from now on. That’s a promise signed with blood.] 

An army of lensmen in front of the new chief minister's house

On 13 May 2011, I stayed glued to the TV since morning to follow the election results in four states including West Bengal, the fourth largest state in India in terms of population, with more people - 9 million - than in Germany. The writing had been on the wall for some time. By midday it was confirmed that "one of the most entrenched political machines in the world", the Marxist government, was on its way out. It was hardly a surprise. But political truth, like God, lives in details. What was surprising was the scale of their defeat. The mighty rulers were reduced to 62 seats in the state legislature, from 235 five years before. Almost all the ministers were defeated by known and unknown upstarts, including a motley collection of fading film-stars, retired government bigwigs, doctors, and so on. The opposition combine of Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Congress came to power with 227 of the 294 seats.

On an awfully humid day, as temperature soared to stifling 36 degrees in shade, people danced on the roads of Kolkata under a scorching sun. It was Holi, the festival of spring, in summer.

In West Bengal, people had started resenting the government of the party, for the party, and by the party. Over time, resentment turned into odium. Ultimately, the common man’s desire found expression in one feisty single woman in her mid-fifties: Mamata Banerjee.

Mamata has neither a political lineage nor much to show for herself except personal integrity, courage and determination. And these qualities she has in abundance. Not long ago, her party’s strength in the parliament was down to one, she being the only MP from TMC. While pundits wrote her political obituary, she kept working towards her goal, undeterred. In 2006 she went on a twenty-six day fast to protest against forcible acquisition of land in Singur. Has anyone else attempted such a thing in India after 1947?

Most of the dancing and merrymaking happened in front of the leader’s house. This is another shift from the past. For the monolithic Marxists, individuals do not matter much; celebrations would happen only in front of their party office. We do not know what this shift foretells. Does it presage an administration with a human touch? Or does it portent tyranny of one person? We will have to wait for the answer.

As the day wore on, temperature soared and a deluge of people visited Mamata’s house, which turned into a place of pilgrimage. In the evening, I along with my friend Gautam walked down to the epicentre of the political Tsunami that swept the left away. A little before reaching our destination, we crossed the famous temple at Kalighat, which had far fewer visitor that day compared to what Mamata's  home had.

Traffic was blocked at the junction near her house. The place looked more like a village fairground. In the palpably lower-middleclass neighbourhood, the narrow lane leading to the house was chock-full with people. Going by the age and gender profile, it didn’t look like a crowd of only political workers. The crowd consisted mainly of ordinary folk like you and me.

Green in Bengal stands as the counterpoint to the Reds

After a short distance, an even narrower alley branched off on the left. We were close to our destination. The ground beneath was covered with a spaghetti like confusion of cables drawn from television OB vans kept in a parallel road some distance away. We stopped in front of an unpretentious house with a tiled roof in front of which dozens of cameramen had gathered under a marquee. The CM elect was away at the Governor's House, a public address system announced. There were thousands of men and women, hope and relief writ large on their faces. I could understand their feeling, because I shared it. It is possibly something that those who haven't lived under a totalitarian regime wouldn't quite fathom.

This tiled building is the address of the new chief minister of West Bengal

A small business close to Mamata's home

On our way back, we came across a shop in a shanty close to Mamata's house. As things stand, it is almost an authentic representation of the state of industry and commerce in Bengal today. Will things change?

A sweat-soaked BBC cameraman

Quite a few foreign journalists were in Kolkata on 13 May to report the end of the elected communist government that lived 34 long years defying all logic. We met one of them on our way home. Will they visit the city again to report something substantially good? Let's hope they will.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Not a pie in the sky

[Hi folks! I was off-blog for a long time as I was suffering from a serious bout of teaching. I am yet to be fully fit, but recovering. You can count on regular posts here from now on. That’s a promise signed in blood.]

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The earth can provide for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.”

The greatest sage of the modern times has been forgotten in his own country, not to mention the rest of the world. We haven’t accepted the minimalist lifestyle preached by Gandhi. Rather, we unquestioningly follow a lifestyle that helps industries grow, but tends to exhaust the limited resources of the earth. Let me give a few examples.

Our government pays lip service to checking global warming but quietly encourages the car industry. There is not even a thought to check the proliferation of fuel-guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs) run on diesel subsidized by picking the poor man’s pocket. The environment minister of the country, Jairam Ramesh said, “Use of SUVs and BMWs in India is criminal” (Economic Times, 13 November 2010). But his government carries on with the criminal activity, unconcerned.

On the other hand, we no longer have pavements in our cities to walk on. Pavements are hacked down to widen roads for the ever-increasing and ever-bigger cars.

Thanks to the eight-to-ten percent annual growth in GDP over two decades, the government coffers are overflowing. The government employee’s salary was doubled in 2006. Many government pensioners today earn a lot more than what they used to while working. The white collar employees in the organized sector too make a lot more today.

But we continue to spend only one percent of our GDP on education – one of the lowest in the world. We have some of the finest institutes of higher learning, and also the largest illiterate population in the world. The primary school system is in a shambles in India. We have many world-class corporate hospitals, but the poor in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere die for want of basic antibiotics.

There is a method in the madness. The economic model adopted by our government requires a huge middleclass with disposable income to support industry and commerce. People have to spend more and more to support industry and business to “grow”. In the process, two things are happening: the poor are largely forgotten by the policy makers, and we are using up natural resources thoughtlessly.

It is not new. The so-called first world has been following this economic model for long. Many social scientists have calculated the consequences of this use-and-throw economy on the global resources. There are credible calculations that show the earth just cannot carry on with the burden for more than a few decades.

How bad is the conspicuous consumption of the West? Here is a case.

Marina Bay Sands, a resort facing the Marina Bay in Singapore, is advertised as the world's most expensive stand-alone casino hotel. Besides the usual trappings of a luxury hotel meant for the super-rich, this place has a special attraction. The complex is topped by a 340 metre-long “Sky Park” and a swimming pool, set on top of the world's largest public cantilevered platform supported by three towers. At 200 metres (656 feet), it is taller than the Eiffel Tower. The Sky Park opened in 2010 looks like this.

When I first saw the pictures, it struck me as a great piece of engineering. And I also thought: Good heavens! Does one have to climb sixty floors to go for a swim? What next? a snow-capped mountain two hundred metres below the earth’s surface?

What do you think of the sky-park: an engineering marvel or a grotesque waste of materials and energy resources?

10 May 2011