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

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Kerala Diary, 27 Feb. 16

When you are in my second home state Kerala, you must take the word "kuda" seriously. The God of God's Own Country isn’t kind towards people who don’t carry a kuda at all times. Last time I came to Kochi, I realised my slip-up the moment I came out of the brand new airport terminal. I didn’t have a kuda, and it was raining – as my authentic Mallu friend Damu would say – elephants and whales. I got completely drenched by the time I boarded a bus. Gentle reader, being intelligent and perceptive, you would have understood what kuda stands for, and possibly also patted my virtual back to tell me how delicately and brilliantly I introduced the central position of an umbrella in the life and space of Kerala!

Moving back to my previous journey, the bus moved through pouring rains along a straight lonely road in a wide lush green plain dotted with countless coconut trees soaked to their bones. There was a partly dry family of Punjabi tourists who had taken the bus along with me. Two kids, both girls, were on nimbus cloud nine as they saw a coconut tree possibly first time outside a picture book. Excited child voices rang out accompanied by happy claps: ‘Mummy, Daddy, see! Coconut tree! Coconut tree!’

In my mind I marvelled at the child’s ability to extract happiness from nowhere. If only we could regain that magic somehow! And I told them in my head, ‘Save your excitement buddies. You are going to see millions of them. You are going to see them even in your dreams.’

That happened on 21 June 2011. And there is a reason for me – despite my dysfunctional memory – to remember the day clearly. I wish I hadn’t been forced to make that journey. Those two days will remain as an unhealed wound at a corner of my heart. … But yesterday, although I’d forgotten the kuda again, I was greeted with a smiling sunny afternoon sky as I got off the aircraft.  What a stroke of fortune.

A taxi was waiting and as we covered the short distance from the airport to Kariyad junction where we turned into the highway, there were hardly any coconut trees. All I saw were buildings after buildings: hotels, pubs, restaurants, homes, large stores, and more under-construction structures. Where have all the coconut trees gone? Or did my driver take a different route? I’ll have to check.

On the positive side, the National Highway 47 between Kanyakumari and Salem, which used to be a pain in wrong parts of your body earlier,  has become four lanes and smooth as a silk ribbon. Long live National Highway Authorities of India!

We came along the highway for most of our 54 kilometre journey, but for the last stretch to Thrissur, we left it at Nadathara. The road became narrower, and the houses on either side became more intimate. There were beautiful bungalows that seemed to be straight out of children’s books throughout. Most of them have sloping red tiled roofs with a small portico in front and every one of them is perfectly balanced. The sculptures you come across in Kerala are generally kitsch, but the people here have a fine sense of architecture (besides money in their banks!).

It was good to say hello to Thrissur, one of the few cities in Kerala I hadn’t visited during my years in the state. As I looked out of the balcony of my fourth floor room, the Latin Cross on the spire above a nearby church had just come alive in fluorescent red. Are padres coming close to communists? …

The lazy meanderings of an idle mind stopped suddenly.

Joe needn't have died in an accident on 19 June 2011.

Thrissur / 27 February 2016

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Neerja Bhanot and the spirit of humanity

Neerja Bhanot (1963 – 1986) was a flight purser for the now-defunct airlines Pan Am. She was an ordinary girl from an ordinary middleclass family based in Mumbai. Her twenty-three years of life was ordinary too, except for the last 17 hours, when she showed amazing courage, compassion for others, presence of mind, and absolute, unbelievable selflessness. 

Neerja was born to Rama and Harish Bhanot, a journalist, in Chandigarh. After she completed Standard 5 in Chandigarh, her family moved to Mumbai. Besides studying in college, she started working as a model too. She had an arranged marriage in 1985 and joined her husband in the Gulf. Unfortunately, like thousands of Indian males, her husband turned out to be a scoundrel who tortured her for dowry. Her marriage survived just two months. Back home, she applied for and got a job as an air hostess with Pan Am. She went to Miami to train as a flight attendant, but came out of the training as a flight purser. The Pan Am authorities had spotted her qualities with great prescience, as later events would prove when she saved the lives of a few hundred people.

On 5 September 1986, two days before her 23rd birthday, Neerja boarded the Pan Am Flight 73 in the small hours in a dark and sleeping Mumbai. She was the head of the in-flight staff when – two hours later – the aircraft was hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists from the Abu Nidal group just before its take-off from Karachi. The plane had 340 passengers. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus and get some of their fellow criminals released from jail there.

And that’s when an utterly asymmetric struggle began between ordinary unarmed passengers and crew on one side, and four ruthless terrorists armed to their teeth on the other. And in this struggle, if I may say so, the people on the side of humanity was led by a 23-year-old girl, Neerja Bhanot.

As soon as Neerja realized that the four men wearing Karachi Airport Security uniform were actually terrorists, she alerted the cockpit. And the all-American cockpit crew of the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer, following Pan Am protocol, left the aircraft through an emergency overhead hatch. I recall that when I read this in 1986, I thought this was an act of unbelievable cowardice and the protocol was stupid and irresponsible. My thought was perhaps natural for someone who had grown up with stories that say the captain is always the last man to leave a sinking ship. But the point could be debated, and let’s move back to the story.

Neerja, being the senior-most cabin crew, had to take charge of the aircraft. The hijackers instructed her to collect the passports of all the passengers. The idea was to put pressure on the USA by identifying and possibly killing Americans on board one by one. Neerja had guessed the hijackers’ intention and saved dozens of American lives by simply hiding ALL the American passports – some under seats and some down a garbage chute. Clearly, this was the first of the several huge personal risks she took to save the passengers. She would surely have been tortured and killed if the trick was found out by the terrorists.

During the seize, one cabin attendant, probably Neerja herself, hid a page of the Flight Manual that described how to open an emergency exit and asked the passenger sitting next to it to “read the magazine carefully.” He did, and this saved some lives hours later.

After 17 hours of stalemate, the aircraft was plunged into semi darkness as the auxiliary power supply ran out and the emergency lights turned on automatically. The nervous and frustrated hijackers opened fire and set off explosives.

The man sitting next to the emergency exit managed to open the door, but couldn’t activate the slide that would help passengers deplane. Yet, some of them jumped off the door at a height of 15 feet above the tarmac.

Neerja opened another door, flung open an emergency chute, and assisted passengers from the aircraft to get off.

She could have been the first to jump off when she opened the door but …

She decided to stay back and help others. Like a real hero, she helped elderly passengers to leave the plane, while every passing moment brought her closer to her own death. And she was shot from behind while shielding three children from a hail of bullets and certain death.

From a total of 379 (359 passengers and 20 crew), 20 got killed, but 359 survived thanks mainly to Neerja. One of the children, then aged 7, is now a pilot with a major airline. He says Neerja Bhanot has been his inspiration and he owes every day of his life to her. Neerja was recognized internationally as "the heroine of the hijack" and posthumously received Ashoka Chakra, India's highest peace-time gallantry award.

And it was not Neerja alone, as the passengers looked death from close quarters, they too showed tremendous courage, compassion and support for fellow humans. A musician Nayan Pancholi who was in that flight has written in India Today TV’s online edition: “That day, nobody saw any religion, caste, or creed in each other. That day, we saw each other as humans and wanted to help each other and save each other’s lives. It's as simple as that in end.”


Let’s now move on to the film which is based broadly on this storyline. A similar narrative can also be seen on Wikipedia and elsewhere. However, some of Neerja’s colleagues in the flight have said this story is more fictional than real. Their point is simple, it was not Neerja alone, but every member of the crew who showed tremendous courage under stress. Maybe they are right, maybe they have a point. But on the Net, they are being abused squarely in high-decibel filthy language and kicked in different parts of their body for being – believe me – “unpatriotic”! Who says India has become intolerant?

And that is the reason I would salute the makers of the film including the director Ram Madhvani. With many other Bollywood film makers today, this film would have been subtly anti-Muslim and crudely anti-Pakistan. But the film is neither. Check these scenes.

When an officer tells the head of the Karachi Airport that there are 44 Pakistanis on the flight, the boss reacts angrily: ‘Do you want me to save the 44 Pakistanis and say “sorry” to the rest?’

In another scene, a man, who looks very much like a Muslim, is seen pushing an American passport under the seat.

For this reason alone, the movie Neerja is worth watching. In the ultimate analysis, even if the plot of the film is partly fictional, it tells a story of the human spirit, and of human values that come to surface when people are face to face with a deadly enemy, be it terrorists or be it floods.

Kolkata / Thursday, 25 February 2016
(Pictures courtesy the Wikipedia)

Saturday, 13 February 2016

What do you care what colliding black holes are saying?

[As you might have noticed, the headline above is pure plagiarism. It's copied from physicist Richard Feynman's (FAIN-muns) oral autobiography: "What Do You Care What Other People Think?": Further Adventures of a Curious Character.]

BLACK HOLES are the most massive objects that exist in our known universe, where the gravitational pull is so strong that even light cannot escape. That's how the thing got its rather ugly name. The nearest black hole to us is just about thousands of light years (lys) away. That is, if you could travel as fast as light, you would take thousands of years to reach there. Should we care about them? Really, should we care what two colliding black holes far away started telling us a billion years ago? In the New York Times, physicist Lawrence M. Krauss argues yes, we should, rather, we must. And this is his argument.

"WITH presidential primaries in full steam, with the country wrapped up in concern about the economy, immigration and terrorism, one might wonder why we should care about the news of a minuscule jiggle produced by an event in a far corner of the universe.

"The answer is simple. While the political displays we have been treated to over the past weeks may reflect some of the worst about what it means to be human, this jiggle, discovered in an exotic physics experiment, reflects the best. Scientists overcame almost insurmountable odds to open a vast new window on the cosmos. And if history is any guide, every time we have built new eyes to observe the universe, our understanding of ourselves and our place in it has been forever altered. ...

"Too often people ask, what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters. But people rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony. Such pinnacles of human creativity change our perspective of our place in the universe. Science, like art, music and literature, has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder. I would argue that it is that aspect of science — its cultural contribution, its humanity — that is perhaps its most important feature."
If you wish to read the entire article, please follow this link.

Kolkata / 13 Feb 2016

Gravitational Waves and We

We are really fortunate to be born in a time when the world has been crossing so many scientific and technological milestones. The experimental verification of gravitational waves -- we are told -- is yet another landmark in the fascinating growth of knowledge and human intelligence.

But sadly, the brilliant achievements of scientists are conversely proportional to the decline in social standards. On the other side of the discovery of gravity waves is the ISIS and a brutal regime in Syria that butchers its own people ... and a handful of Americans and Brits who do not hesitate to destroy a country for cheap petroleum.

And in the sad dystopia that India is today, when a bunch of microcephalic politicians are taking us downhill steadily, there are so many ordinary and extra-ordinary Indians who light up our horizon. Let's all bow to this brilliant physicist by name Sanjeev Dhurandhar, a name we didn't know until yesterday!

To read an article on this scientist in the Indian Express, please click here.

(Photo courtesy The Indian Express)

Kolkata / 12 February 2016