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

Thursday, 15 September 2016

How do you find a friend in Benares?

Sohini Sinha

Benares (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

I reached Benares on an overcast Sunday afternoon. The guesthouse had sent a car to pick me up from the airport. As I stepped out of the airport a fat drop of rain greeted me.  The driver and I hurried to the parked car, eager to be off. I was excited and nervous, this was my first solo trip. We reached the car, which was parked perpendicularly to the curb. And discovered another car parked perpendicularly to our car, blocking its way. It wasn’t the only one, there were three cars in all, parked serially, and very effectively blocking our car’s exit. Whoever does such things?!!! But then, this is Benares. So anything is possible. That thought gave me the license to tell my driver to back out over the curb and make off. He readily revved his engine, the tyres spun against the curb and the car shot out backward over the foot-path, reminding me of Hollywood car chases.  Along with the rain, I smelt a touch of madness in the air.

I had six days, a plan to volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity and simply not enough time to explore this magical city. I checked into my guesthouse at the busy Girja Mor and headed out for a reconnaissance of my route along the ghats to the Missionaries of Charity. On my way back I decided to stop at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Dashashwamedh is like the Mahatma Gandhi Road of the ghats. The weekend crowd was swelling. So I walked to the next ghat, Rajendra Prasad Ghat. It was also very crowded and looked exactly like the India that used to be depicted in movies and other media half a century ago. Snake charmers, children flying kites, large families with women in red, orange and pink saris trailing small kids, turbaned sadhus, dogs, cows and more cows everywhere. Shifting sights, colours, sounds and smells. It felt like being inside a live kaleidoscope.

It was too large a dose of Benares for my first day! As I picked my way through cow dung and cow pee, I noticed a sadhu meditating. White hair, lean body smeared in grey ashes, naked except for a small loincloth, a string of rudraaksh around his neck. As he sat frozen in meditation, an island of peace in the midst of the chaos, a few men chatted on the steps above him, a cow seemed to look for something, two Europeans, an elderly man and a young woman, sat beside him in rapt attention. I pulled out my cell phone and took a photograph.

The next morning at the Missionaries of charity I met three other volunteers.  Franz, a tall, stately old French lady, her cheeks a criss-cross of fine lines and her wrists twinkling with silver bangles and bracelets. Kahn, a gentle slightly built young man, with floppy brown hair, a stubble and a shy smile.  He said he was from the UK and spoke in an accent that I couldn’t place. And Yves a sixty-year-old Frenchman, of even slighter built, close-cropped snow-white hair and beard. He spoke softly and with a French accent that I needed to watch like a hawk. We chatted over small cups of sweet thick tea that the staff made for us and glucose biscuits.

I asked Yves if he had been to India before and he nodded, “Yes, about 20 times.” He then told us about his first visit. It was the year 1972, he was 17 and he hitch-hiked from Paris to Benares. Through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I thought for a moment that a French passport must indeed be a magical thing if it gave its bearer some protection through a route that is fraught with peril today. Perhaps this stretch of the world was a safer place then, but even then, I wondered what it would take a seventeen year-old to go on a journey this through unknown lands, where he didn’t speak the language and long before the safety of today’s connected world of cell-phones and social media. I could’ve asked Yves so many questions, but it was time to get back to our posts. Yves and Kahn went back to tend to the elderly men they helped, sometimes helping them exercise, sometimes helping one of them shave, often running errands like taking up the laundry to the terrace or sweeping the unseasonal rain off the courtyard. Franz went back to chopping vegetables in the kitchen. And I went back to the women of all ages, many of them with the mental age of small children.

A day later I figured that Yves walked back the same way along the ghats to his Guesthouse in the Manikarnika Ghat, beyond mine. So we walked together in the afternoon sun, a sleepy time along the ghats. There were a few people in the shade, flocks of pigeons, crows and the sun sparkling on the dark waters of the river. Yves asked me how I was spending my time in Benares. I told him that I had had just a couple of afternoons, of which I had spent one watching people at the Dashashwamedh and Rajendra Prasad ghats. It suddenly occurred to me that Yves was strangely familiar. I had seen him somewhere. For a moment I was puzzled, and then the penny dropped! I pulled out my phone and showed him the photograph I had taken of the sadhu meditating on the steps of the ghats, and sure enough, it was Yves sitting next to him in my photograph! Lakhs of people thronged the ghats that Sunday, there are over fifty ghats in Benares, I photographed all of two frames and one had this person that I was to meet the next day. What were the odds?

Yves nodded and smiled. “This is how things happen in Benares. I never carry a phone” he said “When I need to meet someone, I run into them.”

Bangalore / 14  September 2016

Wednesday, 14 September 2016


Vinayak left us a few days ago on his way to Sikkim. We miss him. 

He is closely related to us as he is the brother-in-law of Gautam, a friend’s son who we watched growing up to his full six feet three inches. (Or is it four?) My wife Arundhati and me are fond of Gautam and his older brother Hari, who are both well over six and incidentally, wonderful young men. So recently, when my friend called up and said that Aditi’s brother would pass through Kolkata, and asked me to find a hotel room for him, I had no hesitation in inviting him to stay with us. We have a guest room which had been guest-free for quite some time and for much longer, I had had a creepy feeling that my wife was a bit tired of seeing the only other face available in our small flat.

Vinayak is in his early twenties, tall, handsome, has graduated, has worked for a short while, and plans to do masters next year. He is on a sabbatical and reached Kolkata after travelling for weeks through Lucknow and Varanasi. And his way of travelling is quite different from what most of us understand by the word.

He carries nothing but a satchel for his camera and accessories, and an enormously heavy rucksack. He does a lot of research about the places he would visit. For example, he knew the names of the very special paces of Kolkata and had clear idea of what to see and what food to try, like the polychrome flower market near the Howrah Bridge, and the Mughlai paratha at Anadi’s, an eatery where nothing has changed in the last fifty years, not even the piece of cloth with which they pretend to clean the ancient, pre-WW2 tables.

When Vinayak phoned me, I was in a class and couldn’t take his call. He had checked into a hotel and the next day, I picked him up from a pre-arranged point. I reached the place a little late and Vinayak hadn’t wasted his few minutes – he had just tasted a “Kolkata dahi-vada” from a run-down road-side shop. For someone from Delhi, it must have been a disappointment, but he didn’t show it when we met. His eyes smiled through his glasses as we shook hands. Carrying his above-mentioned huge backpack, he was in a blue T-shirt, shorts, and what must have been a pair of comfortable sneakers. They had better be. The previous day, he had walked from the Park Street Metro station approximately seven kilometres to his hotel carrying all his luggage.

The next four days was sheer joy for us. Vinayak had a list of places to visit all of which would take roughly four months, so he had to make compromises. At the breakfast table, he would check his day’s plans with me and decide what were doable. Then he would leave us, go round the city mostly on foot, shoot beautiful pictures from unusual angles through the day, and return home late in the evening. After reaching home, he would insist that he help Arundhati in the kitchen and made it a point to remove the plates after every meal. I didn’t see a tired muscle on his face. Whatever time we had together, he would show us his pictures and tell his travel stories. He stays at inexpensive hotels and travels by ordinary buses and trains even for long-distance travel. He sleeps with the camera bag as his pillow; the camera is the only companion in his long journey.

Since early Stone Age, doddering old fools like me have been telling the world how wretched and useless young people “these days” are. If you are one of them, please tell me, I’ll unfriend you in 10 seconds. (And this is one of the few books where Arundhati and I are on the same page.) Vinayak reinforced our faith that young Indians today are a lot more confident, a lot more clear-headed, a lot more adventurous, and basically good souls, despite most of them voting for the BJP in 2014!

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Saturday, 10 September 2016

A jolly good idea?

As I write this, three people are working in our flat. Abdul is repairing a door, Ishaq is painting the balcony parapet, and Saira, our all-in-one domestic help, is cooking. Abdul, a serious looking man of few words is around 30, but looks 50. Ishaq, still in his teens, has an earphone implanted into an ear. I ask him what songs he is fond of. Shreya Ghoshal, he answers. Saira too has a mobile phone, which is unreachable when we call her. But at our home, her hubby calls every hour – they are newly married – and she coos into the phone for a while. At first, I thought there was some magic. But I soon noticed that the first thing she does after reaching our place is to plug in her mobile. Her phone battery is dead; it works only if connected to external power. Also, quite appropriately, her caller tune is a koel’s call.

Ishaq is from Bihar and Abdul is from West Bengal. Saira too is from another part of Bengal. Ishaq and Abdul live in shanties made of corrugated iron sheets, provided by the builder of our humongous housing complex, a little away. As you enter the workers’ ghetto walled by corrugated sheets (what else?), a vile stench assails you. Non-sanitary toilets have been thoughtfully placed right at the entrance. Vaastu compliance?

Gentle Reader, everyone I have written about here happens to be Muslim. In the condominium we’ve moved into recently, 90% of the workers, barring the omnipresent Odia plumbers, are Muslims from Bengal or Bihar. The security guards, all of them, are from distant corners of Assam. Some of them are from my mother’s hometown. Since I speak their dialect, they have become pally with me. If I have a heavy bag, some of them insist on carrying it, much to my embarrassment. Incidentally, they too are Muslims, almost every one of them.

Why am I writing about Muslim workers? Well, for two reasons, one of which is that although the workers – who just eke out a living – are Muslims from faraway places, the engineers and supervisors are mostly locals and Hindus. Does this tell a story?

Let’s face it. You don’t need the Sachar Committee Report to realise that Muslims in India are among the poorest. And they are as decent and law-abiding as anyone else. As a matter of fact, most of them are just too busy to earn two meals a day, and have neither the inclination nor the time to chant Bharat Mata-ki Jai. Or for that matter, Allahu Akbar.

The second reason I am writing this is that some people close our ruling establishment have been insisting that chanting Bharat Mata-ki Jai is a precondition for living in India. Yesterday, I read this on Facebook: “Kill all the Kashmiris and Send all the Muslims to Pakistan. Or at least teach them a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry.”

This may be the voice of an extremist zealot, but unfortunately there are far too many of them. Those who trawl the Net are familiar with these trolls. The message of hatred spreads like a dangerous virus given the covert and overt support from the highest quarters. The PM in waiting – in an interview with Reuters – equated death of Muslims, at least 1,400 Muslims had died, in the Gujarat Riots with puppies coming under the wheels of a car [Times of India, 12 July 2013]. He has never apologised for the remark – he never does!

He becomes the PM in due course. His henchmen take up the cue. Thanks to the nature of the TV and the social media, which generally abhor serious dialogues and veer towards extreme positions, a mass antipathy is created against Muslims. In many parts of India today, Muslims cannot rent or buy homes. Recently a college lecturer, a beautiful young woman married to a Muslim, told me: “I have been married for ten years. For the first time as I was travelling on Rajdhani Express recently, the TTE looked at me in a queer way as he read out my name. And all the heads turned towards me. I felt I was an outsider who’d gate-crashed into a party.”

Send them all to Pakistan?

When will we realise that hatred towards a community goes against the basic grains of humanity, and no society can survive with deep fault lines. Countries that are at war with themselves, Pakistan, Burma, Afghanistan, are all basket cases today.

There is also a force called ISIS today. They wouldn’t have been there if some imbeciles hadn’t thought of teaching an Iraqi dictator a lesson he wouldn’t forget in a hurry. We don’t have to teach anyone any lesson, let’s just get on with life.

Bengaluru / 16 July 2016

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Teacher's Day, 2016

For me, yesterday happened to be a day of rather bad physical pain, my back revolted against me for sitting before the computer for 14 hours for days at a stretch. Yesterday was also a day of immense joy as I received a number of messages from my students. Some on the FB, more on WhatsApp. The pain will pass in a few days, but the joy will remain.
I tried to reflect why so many of my students think that I am a good teacher. And I also thought of those who believe I am exactly the opposite. But people are polite, they don't take the trouble to type it out on the Facebook.
Anyway, moving back to the "good teacher", what makes a teacher a good teacher? I would define a good teacher as someone whose influence on his/her students in the classroom is far less significant than their influence on students outside the classroom, in their life. For example, a good teacher doesn't just tell their students what the Newton's Laws of Motion signify. They tell their students to think about them, to understand that the first law and the second are actually the same law, Newton possibly invented the first only to set the context of the second law. Just as language teachers begin with a story or a film clipping before moving on to the topic proper.
And more importantly, a good teacher tells their students to understand what Newton's Laws mean in the context of the universe, how they are related to the solar system, and how they are equally relevant in social sciences too.
And there lies the colossal difference between the English word TEACHER and the Sanskrit GURU.
I am neither pompous nor stupid enough to think that I have been a guru to anyone, but honestly, I have tried. And I will keep trying every time in the future when I stand with a white board behind and eager faces in front of me.
To conclude, let me copy-paste what I have written to one of my wonderful students, Dipayan, who has begun his career in one of the best companies in India.
"... I am sure you will keep climbing up the ladder. All the best, and along with that, be happy at all times ... keep enjoying ... and do give yourself the time to look at the sky, watch birds flying, and the infinite ..."
Thank you, Dear Students.

Bengaluru / 6 September 2016